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In the Suburbs / Farewell to Pete Seeger, an icon whose songs inspired action

Published 8:32 am, Sunday, February 2, 2014
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My introduction to Pete Seeger's music came as a boy in 1956 when I attended sleep-away camp in Wisconsin.

My counselor played an album by the Weavers, the ground-breaking folk group Seeger formed in 1948. This reunion album, "The Weavers at Carnegie Hall," was filled with wonderful folk songs such as "On Top of Old Smoky," "Follow the Drinking Gourd," "If I Had a Hammer," "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" and "Good Night Irene."

I've continued to hum and sing those songs over the past 58 years. So when Seeger -- an iconic figure in folk music and civil rights -- died Tuesday at 94, I paused to look back.

When I returned home to Chicago from camp, I was hooked. I bought "The Weavers at Carnegie Hall" and a couple of other albums. As a folk fanatic, I was glued to my family's new hi-fi, singing along.

But I was also a blissfully ignorant 12-year-old, who knew nothing of Pete Seeger's social activism and how it had affected the Weavers. I would learn from a short biography of Seeger that the Weavers stopped singing during the anti-communist "Red Scare" of the early '50s because of negative publicity about Seeger's activism. The group later would get back together, but disbanded in 1962.

I will miss Seeger's solo television concerts and his wry sense of humor. I always loved his personal commentary and insights about folk songs and their history.

In one biography, I learned he was from New York, received his early education at Avon Old Farms, a boarding school near Hartford, and eventually enrolled at Harvard on a scholarship in 1936. But he failed an exam two years later, lost his scholarship and dropped out, spending the next couple of years hitchhiking and riding freight trains, which probably inspired some of his best songs.

I learned a lot more about Seeger the man from a long transcript of his commentary posted on www.democracynow.org Tuesday. It was titled "We Shall Overcome: Remembering Folk Icon, Activitist, Pete Seeger in His Own Words."

According to the website, "Seeger led an illustrious musical career. In the 1940s, he performed in the Almanac Singers with Woody Guthrie. Then he formed the Weavers. In the 1950s, he was blacklisted after he opposed Sen. Joseph McCarthy's political witch hunt and was almost jailed for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

"Seeger became a prominent civil rights activist," the website said, "and helped popularize the anthem `We Shall Overcome.' In the 1960s, he was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and inspired generations of protest singers. With his late wife Toshi, Pete helped found Clearwater, a group to clean up the Hudson River."

Two of my favorite Pete Seeger songs became classics for my generation -- the Vietnam War protest anthem "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?" and "Turn Turn Turn," which later was covered by the Byrds. I still hum or sing along to those songs whenever I hear them.

At an inaugural concert for Barack Obama in 2009 at the Lincoln Memorial, Seeger sang "This Land is Your Land" -- written by his long-time friend, Woody Guthrie -- with Bruce Springsteen and his grandson.

From my perspective, Pete Seeger's music is timeless, and I never tire of hearing it. While I was never fortunate enough to get to one of his live concerts, the broadcasts of those concerts on public television or cable have provided front-row seats.

I was especially impressed with Seeger's 90th birthday performance in New York. His voice was as rich as ever, and he belted out the classics effortlessly. The man was ageless.

A news brief I heard on National Public Radio on Tuesday was a perfect tribute. It featured a recent short interview with him, in which he said he hoped his songs would move people to do something, and not just say something.

I can't help thinking that, over the last seven decades, more people than Seeger ever imagined probably have acted on the inspiring words in his songs. That's why his rich legacy will live on.

For me, the last verse of "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?" evokes vivid memories and sometimes sparks new insights about a man whose folk music and passion did so much to enlighten and motivate so many.

Where have all the graveyards gone?

Long time passing.

Where have all the graveyards gone?

Long time ago.

Where have all the graveyards gone?

Covered with flowers every one.

When will we ever learn?

When will we ever learn?

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.