Remembering music that has meaning 

click to enlarge SANDRA A. DUNLAP / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - American folk music iconand activist Pete Seeger performs at the Fishkill Creek Festival July 25, 2009 in Beacon, NY.
  • Sandra A. Dunlap / Shutterstock.com
  • American folk music iconand activist Pete Seeger performs at the Fishkill Creek Festival July 25, 2009 in Beacon, NY.

"This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender"

There was a time, perhaps a mythological time it seems so long ago, when people made music and sang songs. The tunes weren't very complex; neither were the words. This is not to say the words were meaningless. Far from it. The words told stories, carried the hopes and dreams of the people who sang them, helped pass the tedium of uninspiring days and nights, presented bold ideas in simple terms, gave hope to the hopeless and not infrequently caused moments of discomfort to many who only knew comfort.

There were no pyrotechnics, no dazzling light shows, not much amplification, no outrageous costumes. The musicians played instruments, the singers sang songs, those with enough talent to do both went about their task with workmanlike efficiency and very little showmanship. Do not be put off by the use of the words workmanlike and showmanship; many of the performers were women and virtually all of them would have cringed at the very notion of words like workwomanlike or showpersonship, viewing them as feeble, unnecessary attempts at form over substance.

Before other forms of entertainment existed, there were songs and stories and nearly everyone was a singer and storyteller. Some were, of course, better than others, more talented, wittier, more able to carry a tune and string words together in ways they hadn't been linked before, creating in the process new images and memories, evoking deep emotions and lasting feelings.

Many of the songs and stories were transient. They captured a moment in time and faded when that moment passed. Others were timeless; they captured something universal, something human, something that never changes even though everything else changes around them. Some of them simply entertained, lightened life's load if only for a moment. Some of them carried such a punch they changed the world in profound ways. They stopped tyrants, ended wars, raised hopes, evened an uneven score, lifted people out of poverty and even slavery.

Pete Seeger sang all those songs, wrote many of them, recorded most of them and played them for more than seven decades. He played and sang for audiences large and small, poor and rich, powerful and powerless. His songs started movements and kept them going. His songs improved the lives of working men and women by helping them organize labour unions and defy bosses and their head-splitting henchmen who too often wore the uniform of those society organized to protect and serve. His songs cleaned up the Hudson River. His songs lent strength to the civil rights and antiwar movements.

Though he lasted 94 years, dying earlier this week, his songs will very likely last forever.

I was lucky enough to see him perform twice. The first time was at the height of both the Vietnam war and the antiwar movement it gave rise to. He was tall and lean and had the full power of a middle-age man. He commanded the stage with nothing more than his five-string banjo — upon which was written the words at the opening of this column — a microphone and a PA system too weak and reproductively challenged to do justice to either his performance or the sizable audience in attendance.

It didn't matter that the PA was pathetic. It didn't matter that only those of us who crowded within reasonable distance of the stage could actually hear his voice. It didn't matter because when he performed, everybody performed; when he sang, everybody sang. "This song sounds better the more voices that sing it," he'd urge the crowd whenever he performed, as he did repeatedly that night. "And the more out of tune voices, the better it sounds," he'd often add, hoping to put those suffering from either organic or socialized amusica at ease.

The sound started at the stage and grew like a wave through the audience. Everybody sang and eventually, everybody sang without hesitation or embarrassment. Pete sang twice. Once when he'd tell you what the next line of the song was and the second time when he sang it. Sometimes it seemed an unnecessary gesture, kind of like flight attendants showing passengers how to buckle and unbuckle a seatbelt. Really? There's somebody left in the world who doesn't know how to do that.

Maybe there is. But there wasn't anybody in the crowd who didn't know the words to "We Shall Overcome," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "This Land Is Your Land," or "Turn, Turn, Turn."

The second time I saw him was in Toronto in the early 1990s. He played two shows outdoors, in the round pavilion at Ontario Place. I stayed for both.

He played with Arlo Guthrie, Woody's son. They sang alone and together. They sang Pete's songs and Woody's songs, Arlo's songs and, as he always seemed to, a soft rendition of "Guantanamera", preceded by a history lesson where he explained and translated the words penned by Cuban poet, José Marti. It was probably the first time most people in the audience actually understood the words and certainly the first time many sang in Spanish. But it was a good example at how easily Pete Seeger would command an audience with gentle, persistent persuasion.

It was the same persistence that led to his conviction for contempt of Congress — that would be the U.S. Congress, for whom we now all have contempt; Pete was just ahead of his time once again — in 1961. Caught up in the Red Scare Communist witchhunt sponsored by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, he declined to answer their silly questions. He did, however, bring his banjo with him and offered to sing the Un-American songs cited by committee members who questioned him. They declined his offer and it may have been the only audience he ever sang to who probably wouldn't have sung along.

When I think about Pete Seeger and his music it makes me happy to have heard it all my life. I feel so much richer that I heard it before ever being exposed to the overexposure of such music-less halfwits as Miley Cyrus. Of course I still carry a grudge, now deepened, against her father whose "Achy Breaky Heart" constituted a new low in a musical genre chockablock with lows.

I suspect future generations will still be singing some of Pete's anthems to justice long after everyone's forgotten that pathetic woman and whatever it is she does on stage. If not, I'll be glad to not be around to see the world that makes that choice. 

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