A banjo player dies at 94 and, for a moment, millions of graying Americans are young and idealistic again.
Pete Seeger was a tall man, and he left a long shadow. He was born in 1919, in a nation which was born in 1776. That made him one third as old as the United States, a span of time which suited the timelessness of his music and the eternal optimism of his character.
Wait. The analyst in me rebels. Pete wasn’t “one third” as old as this country. He was precisely 0.39495798319 percent as old — 40 percent, if you round up. But Pete Seeger knew that what comes first is the poetic reality, the reality of the heart. The other work — whether it’s crunching numbers, challenging lies, or marching in the streets — comes afterwards. First the heart must be inspired toward the work by the beauty of the dream. And the beauty of the dream is the cadence of the song.
So one-third it is. And for now we’ll let “round up” mean a musical meet up, not a mathematical maneuver. (Here’s a clip of Pete appearing on the 1946 radio show Dinner Bell Round-Up Time with Chill Wills.)
“He didn’t separate his music from his politics,” Pete’s friend and colleague Happy Traum told us today. “Even when he sang a lullaby it was a political act.”
Traum, a legendary folk performer himself, now publishes music instruction materials. “For Pete performing always involved activism of some kind,” he says, “whether it was political change or building an audience for the music he loved.”
It hurts to lose anybody that good. It especially hurts to losing a truly progressive cultural icon, when that rara avis becomes rarer with every passing year.
“Pete was a teacher just as much as he was a performer,” says Happy Traum.
Those of us who became musicians in the late ’60s learned a lot from Pete Seeger. And some of us had a problem with him. Young and proud, we set about using music for selfish and vain reasons. We learned electric guitar and bass licks, wrote psychedelic or punky songs, studied with avant-garde jazz musicians — all noble endeavors when done in the right spirit. But ours was not the right spirit. We were trying to make musicianship feel like an inaccessible act of genius, which seemed like a better way to meet girls — or boys, or celebrities, or record reviewers, or anyone else we wanted to meet.
“Pete didn’t care whether you had talent or not,” Happy Traum says. “He wanted everybody to experience the joy of playing and singing.”
Pete was a true son of the folk tradition, where music is a part of daily life — like cooking, or hunting, or handicrafts. His book, How to Play the Five-String Banjo, taught generations of players.(Traum, a longtime acquaintance of Pete’s, developed a stronger relationship with him after becoming the publisher of that book and an accompanying video.)
Pete Seeger made music accessible. He even made it seem …read more
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