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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger

Rather than submitting to the House Un-American Committee's demand that he name names, Pete Seeger offered to sing to the chairman some songs from that chairman's native county -- which happened to be a coal-mining area. Not surprisingly, the offer was declined and Seeger was charged with contempt, a ruling that wouldn't be overturned for several years.

Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and
Fred Hellerman at Carnegie Hall in 1980
It was a gutsy move. Zero Mostel impersonated a butterfly, Artie Shaw wept, Burl Ives sang like a canary, Elia Kazan and Jerome Robbins named names like adorable lapdogs. Which is why Mostel and Seeger and so many others had to struggle for so many years to overcome the blacklist.

But Seeger's was a life of gutsy decisions, some of them simply the result of being in the right place, however ironically, at the right time, and deciding to stay there when a sense of safety might have suggested otherwise.

One of the foundation stones of his home in Beacon, NY, was a rock hurled through his car window by a state trooper in Peekskill in 1949, the aftermath of a concert at which Seeger, Paul Robeson, and many other left-leaning performers performed. As the local VFW saw it, it was a petrie dish of communist bacilla, sure to infect the surrounding populace, so they -- with the help of the troopers and other thugs -- ambushed the staging area and battered the departing vehicles. (An inquiry went to then-governor Dewey, who sided with the thugs.)

The improbable pairing of Seeger's new singing group, The Weavers, and dance-band leader Gordon Jenkins resulted in an even more improbable hit when "Goodnight, Irene" topped the charts in 1950. Jenkins's sweet strings and easy-listening chorus may seem incongruous, but he knew how to grab America's ears and Seeger never had a word to say against him.

An interesting sidenote is that Jenkins asked the Weavers to record their repertory for him before he created the arrangements he made for a series of discs on the Decca label, and those recordings -- along with the Decca sides -- were CD-issued by the Bear Family label and are worth a search.

I reviewed Seeger's recent appearance at Proctors in Schenectady here; there's a CD review here, and a piece about a collection of Broadside recordings here. So long; it's been good to know you.

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