When most Americans approach the age of 65, their thoughts turn to retirement, and slowing down to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Then, there's legendary folk singer-songwriter Pete Seeger, who celebrated his 89th birthday May 3, by recording a album of what he calls "new takes on old favorites." VOA's Katherine Cole tells us more about Pete Seeger at 89.
Although the goals of world peace and environmental purity Pete Seeger has championed through song for more than 60 years still haven't materialized, he isn't giving up. In September, the 89-year-old troubadour came to the aid of farmers, headlining a pair of concerts raising money for New England Farm Relief, a group funding loans for small family farms. He's also released a new album, Pete Seeger at 89, which includes new versions of some old favorites, along with the stories behind the songs. In his introduction to "Or Else!", Pete Seeger talks about the need to be active and involved in the world around us.
"Now you and I, no matter where you live, has a job that everyone has to get involved in," Seeger said. "Not just cleaning up a river, but an entire word, before it gets blown up."
For many, Pete Seeger will always be America's most-famous, and infamous, folk singer. Born in New York City, he grew up believing that song has the power to change the world. Seeger dropped out of Harvard College in 1938, and began working with music archivist Alan Lomax, assisting him on song-collecting trips through the American south. In the early-1940s, Seeger formed The Almanac Singers, a highly-politicized singing group known for recording union songs and anti-war anthems.
While the start of World War II meant the end of The Almanac Singers, a stint in the Army didn't mean the end of Pete Seeger's singing career. In 1948, he formed The Weavers, who soon became one of America's favorite singing groups. Poet Carl Sandberg wrote, "The Weavers are out of the grassroots of America. When I hear America singing, The Weavers are there."
One of the most-famous songs by The Weavers, "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena", makes an appearance on Pete Seeger at 89, albeit in a slightly different version. The 21st Century version includes not only an English translation of Israeli song, but also a translation in Arabic. And as Pete Seeger describes it, all the parts harmonize with each other.
As popular as it was, "Tzena Tzena Tzena" and his other hit songs couldn't rescue Pete Seeger from the Communist witch hunts of the early-1950s. Three members of The Weavers were named as members of the Communist Party. The group was soon ostracized. Despite selling millions of records, The Weavers couldn't get hired for concerts, and were dropped by their record label. In 1955, Pete Seeger was called to Washington to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee, where he was questioned about his political associations. While he was willing to talk about his own political beliefs, Seeger refused to name other members of the various political groups he joined. He told the committee, "I am not going to answer any questions as to my associations, my philosophical or my religious beliefs, or how I voted in any election or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked."
Because of that, on July 26, 1956, the House of Representatives voted 373 - 9 to cite Pete Seeger, playwright Arthur Miller, and six others for contempt. Five years later, Seeger's case finally came to trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, resulting in worldwide protests. Although the verdict was overturned, that dismissal didn't mean a return to business as usual for Pete. He was still blacklisted (ostracized) by many organizations, making it difficult to book concerts. Pete Seeger didn't return to U.S. radio and television until the late-1960's.
All the more remarkable is, that in 1994, Pete Seeger returned to Washington to receive the Presidential Medal of the Arts, the nation's highest artistic honor. Two years later he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now, at 89, Pete Seeger has a list of honors longer than the neck on his famed banjo; not bad for a man who says he never planned to make music his career.
"I did not want to be a professional musician," Seeger said. "I liked to sing, but I thought the music business was full of hypocrisy. I did, though, go sing in the schools and in summer camps. And then some of the kids grew up and went to college. And I, during the 'frightened '50s' when the blacklist was in the popular music business, I just went from college to college to college to college to college to college to college. The most important job I ever did. I could have kicked the bucket [died] in 1960. My job was done! After me, a whole bunch of young people came along: Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and a whole lot of others. And now, it's out of control."
It was Pete Seeger who changed the words of an old spiritual from "We Will Overcome" to "We Shall Overcome", and then sang it to American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who went on to make it an anthem of the civil right movement in the 1960s. Seeger's optimism endures. The new political singalong, "If It Can't Be Reduced", and the other songs on Pete Seeger at 89, are infused with the feeling that anything can happen, and everything is possible if we all work together.