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Craven: The Seeger Legacy

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When Pete Seeger was inducted to the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, singer Harry Belafonte framed the moment by saying, “If I were to be given the opportunity to pick the fifth face for Mount Rushmore, I would nominate Pete Seeger.”
 

At the same event, folksinger and raconteur Arlo Guthrie noted that it had been 50 years since Pete and the Weavers recorded Leadbelly’s song, “Good Night Irene,” which went to the top of the charts.

“I can’t think of a single event in Pete’s life,” Arlo said, “that is less important to him.’’

Belafonte and Arlo captured the dual qualities of Pete’s life - as a towering cultural figure and a modest man. Pete’s stage extended to the whole of 20th century American history, through his support of movements for peace and social change and his resulting tangles, standing up to the McCarthy era witch hunts.

And it was Pete Seeger who joined America’s dustbowl troubadour Woody Guthrie, singing at campfires, union halls, and anywhere people gathered to tell stories and chronicle their hopes and struggles. Pete joined Woody in those days, singing Guthrie’s populist anthem, “This Land Is Your Land” – to the very people who inspired it.

But Woody Guthrie died young and Pete, playing solo or often with Arlo at his side, bridged the elder Guthrie’s legacy to new generations. He also wrote potent and lyrical songs including “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and he arranged “We Shall Overcome,” a song drawn from black spirituals that inspired Martin Luther King and captured the spirit and purpose of the civil right movement.

During his career Pete Seeger drew attention to hundreds of other musicians — and no one was better at getting the entire audience to join in. Arlo discussed this in a recent Time Magazine interview:

“I remember watching how Pete handled the audience,” Arlo said. “He would just wave his hand, and you could hear people singing.”

During his later years, Pete leaned more and more on his audiences, claiming he was losing his voice. I saw him during this period and he still sounded pretty good to me. But he wanted us to make these songs our own.

Again, Arlo remembered.

“Arlo,” Pete said, “I can’t do those big shows with you anymore. I can’t sing like I used to. I can’t play like I used to play.”

Arlo just looked at Pete and said, “Pete, look at our audience. They can’t hear like they used to hear. It shouldn’t be a problem.”

Pete Seeger was a friend to Vermont — he performed two benefit concerts for a film I helped produce — and I know of many others. I sometimes remarked that it was easier to get Pete to perform for free than it was to pay him.

Pete Seeger lived a good long life, setting an example for artistry, imagination, courage, and generosity that inspires new generations. With Pete Seeger gone, it’s now our turn to do the singing.