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A Tribute to Pete Seeger

Ellen Levitt

Posted on May 3, 2022 19:15

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Today is the birthday of the late singer and activist Pete Seeger.

As I write this I am listening to recordings of the late Pete Seeger, an inspirational and remarkable American folk singer, musician, and activist who promoted various causes. Born May 3, 1919, Seeger played guitar and banjo, sang songs about the average struggling person, and fought for causes such peace, environmental protection, workers' rights, civil rights, and much more.

He had a strong and smooth tenor voice and made numerous recordings. He gave so many heartfelt musical performances and joined many, many protests. At times he was highly controversial for his views and efforts, but also served in the US Army during World War Two (mostly as a performer but also as a mechanic).

He came from a musical family with a long American pedigree, and his siblings also were musicians. 

When I was a kid, I would see him on TV and admired his music and his easy-going rapport with people of all types. I've read stories about people who would walk up to him and ask him to sing a song on a commuter train or at a restaurant and he would do so, happily. 

But he did not live a glamorous, superstar life. He shrugged that off and devoted himself to educating, entertaining, and inspiring people to get involved in fighting for their rights. He was deeply American but also seemed an affront to the uber-commercial, big-bucks mentality. 

I had the privilege of meeting him once, at the outdoor Clearwater Festival in 2010. We had seen him perform with a children's choir, like a grandpa leading a bunch of eager kids in song. Later I saw him sitting in a cart on the grounds, and I told my husband and a friend that I was going to chat with him. "No, you can't just go up to him," someone told me.

"Sure I can," I told them. I walked up to him and said "Hello, sir, can I ask you some questions about playing the banjo?"

"Yes, go ahead," he told me. I mentioned to him that I'd tried once to play the banjo because I could play the guitar, but found it tougher than I'd anticipated.

"Well, you have to treat it like a rhythm instrument," he explained and gave me further advice. I listened and then asked him to sign my Festival program. He agreed to this, signed it, and we bid each other farewell. My crew was astonished but I wasn't. I knew that he would be like that, like a friendly elder who would talk with you if you showed him common respect.

Seeger sang songs in English, Spanish, Yiddish, and many other tongues. Here is a video of him singing one of my favorite Yiddish folksongs, Tumbalalaika, with Ruth Rubin. 

I was happy to see that WKCR-FM, the Columbia University radio station, played a 12-hour tribute to him, featuring music from all periods of his lengthy career. Listen to him and find some inspiration.

 

Ellen Levitt

Posted on May 3, 2022 19:15

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