The iconic folksinger who died last week fed our hunger for songs that were real and good, says Daily Yonder Publisher Dee Davis. And he did it in a way that kept us coming back for more.
I met Pete Seeger in an elevator at the old offices of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington.
Pete was on his way to a panel meeting to give away folk arts grants, and it was then my job to know the difference between authentic folk artists and imitative folk revivalists. And to get grants for both.
Pete had a brown paper bag full of groceries. I could see bell peppers and a long baguette that stuck out the top. He always brought snacks. We had a nice quick chat on the ride up, and as luck would have it, in the elevator again the next day.
I grew up in a house with an inordinate amount of singing. Children my size and smaller were often conscripted to join in family scenes by the piano to obscure my mother’s addiction to song. It’s always the kids who suffer.
I still remember the morning Mom called me in to see the Today Show on a 14” black and white portable as Peter, Paul and Mary covered Seeger and Hayes’ “If I Had a Hammer.” It looked and sounded like a beatnik Holiness meeting with hair shaking, shouting and disruptive harmonies.
After that our hi-fi suffused the home with folk music. I recall listening to his “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” with a little boy’s awe, how the words circled around, that you could even do that. Gone for soldiers everyone. When will they ever learn?
Seeger in a scene from the Appalshop documentary “Dreadful Memories: The Life of Sarah Ogan Gunning.” Seeger met Gunning in New York City, where the Kentucky singer moved after losing two children to hunger and disease in the coalfields during the Great Depression.
Pete was a pal of my pal Bess Lomax Hawes. Bess’ dad, John, and her brother Alan were our first certified folklorists, a field of study for people who sort through old songs, stories and artifacts. As Alan explained one day in a sweeping gesture, “Right over here in the sub-basement of this Library of Congress annex with just some tables and chairs, my father and I invented folklore.”
Bess tried to be less iconic. She had earlier been one of the Almanac Singers and co-wrote “Charlie and the M.T.A.” Did he ever return? No, he never returned. His fate is still unlearned. We sang that one in Kentucky too.
Bess ran the Arts Endowment’s folk arts program and thought my colleagues and I – stirring pots in Appalachia – were worth a bet. She got Pete to pitch in too. He was in a couple of Appalshop documentaries in the 1990’s.
Pete’s lines that I remember best are from the video about Sarah Ogan Gunning, whose songs lay bare coal company complicity in both the death of her child who starved and her husband, a broken miner, who perished with TB. The rich and mighty capitalists, They dress in jewels and silk, But my darlin blue eyed baby She starved to death for milk.
Pete said that he had grown up middle class and had never missed a meal unless it was by accident. He talked about what it meant to sit with Sarah and hear her sing about the loss of her child, to unleash something so fierce and unadorned.
Pete was a banjo picker and an echo. He could hear what was real, and it was a different kind of real again when he played it back. He could phrase “We Shall Overcome” so everyone could hear it clear. He could hammer out justice, warning, and love between my brothers and my sisters so that knucklehead children and singing moms, the country’s high fidelity families, striking workers and marching battalions of the sick and tired could feel a little something to rally them on.
Pete knew who he was. He was the guy who brought the snacks. But he also knew us and just how snack dependent we’d become.
The last time I saw Pete up close was almost 19 years ago. He played outside on a stage in a tent on a frigid spring night in East Tennessee, a tribute to folklorist Ralph Rinzler. It was at the Highlander Center in New Market, one of the places where “We Shall Overcome” was reinvented from its more prosaic start as gospel music.
The festival grounds were just across the ridge from Dollywood and Pigeon Forge, an ersatz feedback-version of Appalachia plopped down on top of where the authentic one used to be. Pete’s voice had grown reedy and soft. He sang with his grandson to get the volume up.
And after that I took my teenage kid backstage to where Pete was sitting smiling, listening.
Dee Davis is the publisher of the Daily Yonder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies. He grew up in Hazard, Kentucky, and lives in Whitesburg.