This article - Why Pete Seeger is one hot octogenarian - originally appeared in The Globe and Mail in April, 2006. We’re giving readers access to it again after the death, at age 94 Monday, of one of the music world’s cultural icons.
It's a very great mistake
to let pessimism get you down.
- Pete Seeger, 1972
'This is Pete Seeger."
And so it is, 86 years young (87 on May 3) at the end of a telephone line stretching from Toronto to the Hudson River town of Beacon, N.Y., which Seeger and Toshi, his wife of almost 63 years, have called home since 1949.
The voice sounds like Pete Seeger, at once light, authoritative, engaging -- instantly familiar, in short, to anyone who's ever attended a Seeger concert and been exhorted to sing along to Cotton Fields or a Bantu ballad, or who's heard his rousing "split tenor" on the hundreds of recordings he's made since 1941, or caught him on TV shows like Sesame Street, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Canada's own Singalong Jubilee.
"Legend," of course, is a much overused word nowadays, indiscriminately applied to everyone from Zsa Zsa Gabor to Neil Diamond.
But it's an accurate descriptor for Seeger, draping as easily on his tall, lanky frame as his famous five-string banjo drapes over his shoulder. If there's a more beloved ex-Communist in the world, I don't know his (or her) name. Karl Marx wrote a pretty groovy book in The Communist Manifesto but Pete Seeger wrote If I Had a Hammer, Turn! Turn! Turn! and Where Have All the Flowers Gone.
Seeger confesses he doesn't do much singing these days, at least not in front of large crowds. He says he "strained [his] voice all sorts of ways" through decades of touring. "I just stretched out my neck and shouted when I should have been using my abdomen more. Umpteen versions of Wimoweh do take their toll, you know."
True, he did a concert a year ago in Beacon with Arlo Guthrie, son of the late Woody Guthrie -- you know: the guy who wrote This Land Is Your Land, Pretty Boy Floyd and Pastures of Plenty -- whom Seeger first met in 1939 in New York and accompanied on a, well . . . legendary road trip a year later. "It was a fine evening. We did old songs we knew very well, so it wasn't that onerous. We started with Midnight Special."
At the mention of Midnight Special -- a composition by yet another famous friend from his youth, Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly -- he pulls a characteristic Seegerian manoeuvre: He sort of slides, unprompted, into a related topic. "Y'know, the best version of Midnight Special I ever was involved in was in Canada, at McGill University. There was an audience of maybe 150 and it kept getting better and better as it rolled along. Really great."
And when was this?
"Oh, about 50 years ago."
Even if Seeger is currently husbanding his voice, others are happily singing out of his songbook, most notably Bruce Springsteen whose latest CD, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, (in stores today) features 15 tunes that Pete has performed over the years. ("Does anyone ever call you Peter?" "My wife.") The Boss, 30 years Seeger's junior, has been a friend of Seeger's since the mid-1990s, and first recorded Seeger's adaptation of We Shall Overcome for a two-CD tribute in 1997. Of course, in recent years, Springsteen has cast himself as a populist, politicized troubadour in the mould of Guthrie and Seeger, especially so in 2004 when he performed several concerts in support of John Kerry's candidacy against George W. Bush. The failure of that effort reportedly put the Boss in a depressive funk for several months. Did Springsteen seek Seeger's counsel, since Seeger certainly has known his share of sorrow yet been able to "dress himself in happiness to stagger about this agonized world?"