Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Vale Pete Seeger

Image courtesy of the Washington Post

Peter Seeger has died at the age of 94. Not a bad innings for a guy who was once one of the most hated men in America.

Pete was a folk singer with a radical bent, who used his music as a platform for political debate and for raising awareness of injustice and other social ills in the world. He was enormously influential to people such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Peter Paul and Mary, Arlo Guthrie, Martin Carthy (of Fairport Convention) and countless other folk singers.

While he was beloved as a singer and a songwriter, contributing many a classic to the great American songbook ("If I Had A Hammer", "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?", "Turn! Turn! Turn!"), it was his activism that landed him afoul of the law. At the age of 17 he joined the Young Communism League and started writing anti-war/anti-draft songs. At age 22 he was a full member of the Communist party in America. He joined a group called the Almanac Singers in 1941 and they were notorious for their songs promoting Industrialized unionism and racial inclusion.

After serving in World War 2, he reconstituted the Almanacs into The Weavers, and they started having some major hits with records such as "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" and "Goodnight Irene". During the early 1950s, a house of Representatives committee called the "House Un-American Activities Committee" was created to flush out Communist sympathisers in Hollywood and the Music Industry. The Weavers were named on the House blacklist and they were banned from the media. Struggling for work, the band wrote a jingle for a Cigarette company, and Pete resigned in protest.

Being named on the blacklist, Pete found it difficult to get gigs or even to rent a place to live. Soon after moving in he told in no uncertain terms by neighbours he was unwelcome. He was indicted by the house in 1961 and sent to jail for a year before the conviction was appealed in 1962.

After his name was cleared, he started performing solo shows, which were picketed by far-right-wing groups like the John Birch Society who believed he was an insurgent! He renounced communism early on and until his death believed that following communism was the wrong way forward, once he discovered the horrors of Stalin's regime.

Here was a man who not afraid to stand up and speak out for his convictions. And he paid dearly for them. He supported and promoted the careers of many an aspiring folk singer and he has fans as varied as President Obama and Johnny Rotten.

He will be sorely missed. Rest In Peace.

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