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February 11, 2014

RONN MOTT: Pete Seeger

I was saddened to learn that Pete Seeger had passed away. He died in his home along the Hudson River in upstate New York. You think of folk songs and you think of the hill country of the Appalachians, and perhaps the dusty plains of the American Southwest. But Pete Seeger was born in New York City. He was born to musical parents, and his father was studying folk music and going where it was played. Young Pete went with his dad.

Seeger went to Harvard, got mixed up in politics, the wrong kind of politics, but he would drop out and join a bunch of young folk singers in New York City. Among those was Burl Ives, who had left Terre Haute a few years earlier. Seeger was a part of the Almanac Singers and got himself drafted in the U.S. Army for World War II. Like so many who had been enchanted by the Communist Party, he became disenchanted about the same time he was a part of the Weavers, three guys and a girl who sang folk songs. They also discovered Huey Ledbetter, who was in and out of Texas prisons, but also writing and singing songs of his troubled time. The Weavers recorded one of his songs and it became a No. 1 hit. It was “Good Night Irene,” a song I had discovered on the jukebox at Barcklay’s Restaurant on the east side of the square in Newport, Ind. Songs were only a nickel on the jukebox those days in the early 1950s. I really liked the song, although I didn’t completely understand it, but I liked the enthusiasm and the harmony of the Weavers.

They also popularized “On Top of Old Smokey,” and all of that brought them to the attention of the House on American Activities Committee. That time in America when the HUAC was looking under every rock to find a Communist or any influence of the Communist Party in America, Seeger was pointed out for once being a “Red” in his youth, and was banished from television. An attempt was also made to banish the singing group, and it was at least in part successful.

The Weavers were never very successful again after all of this, but folk music, singing songs of the laboring man and injustices and the like, was becoming very successful. The Kingston Trio had a hit song Pete Seeger wrote, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” a song about too many young men dying in war. “Kisses Sweeter than Wine” was about the love of a young man for a young woman, and “Turn, Turn, Turn” was taken from the Bible. Seeger wrote all of these. He said, and I’m not quoting this word for word, “In America, they don’t want you to sing about the dire circumstances of poor people, and the Communists don’t want you to sing about circumstances you find hope in, as in praying to God.” (I’m rather sure I have muddled that up, but the memory isn’t always as good as I would like it to be.) He was a friend of Woody Guthrie and other folk singers of this time and place.

His last big thing was to travel up and down the Hudson River singing songs about its blight and trying to raise funds to clean it up. It is now cleaner than it has been in years.

Pete Seeger was not a great singer, but, perhaps, the best storyteller of anybody who told stories in song. Also, he was a man who stood for his principles in spite of all the pressure put against those beliefs. I’ve always liked Pete Seeger’s music, his love of it and the fact he said you can say things in song that you could not say in ordinary speaking. All of the ills Pete Seeger sang about have not been corrected, but he tried. He tried his entire life. Those of us who like this genre of music we call “folk songs” will always have respect and admiration for Pete Seeger.

Ronn Mott, a longtime radio personality in Terre Haute, writes commentaries for the Tribune-Star. His pieces are published online Tuesday and Thursday on Tribstar.com, and in the print and online editions on Saturday.

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