By James Beaty
He had a hammer.
Pete Seeger’s been around as long as I can remember. That’s why the world seemed a little emptier when I learned of his passing Monday.
In a world that all too much these days seems driven by a “what’s in it for me?” attitude, Seeger’s long career stands as a beacon of integrity. He sang and performed throughout many of the 94 years he lived on this earth and had been a fellow songster and friend of Oklahoma’s own Woody Guthrie.
As an elementary-school kid, I remember watching the ABC television show called “Hootenanny,” built around the folk music boom at the time, the “great folk scare,” as its practitioners affectionately called it.
I remember seeing many of the popular folk groups and solo singers of the time on “Hootenanny” — big groups such as The New Christy Minstrels singing “Green, Green” and “Today,” the Serendipity Singers with “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” and The Rooftop Singers with “Walk Right In.”
Those were just the groups. “Hootenanny” also featured enduring solo artists such as Judy Collins and even Johnny Cash.
I never saw Pete Seeger on the then-popular television show, though. Years later, I learned he had been blacklisted for refusing to name names when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955.
Even though “Hootenanny” ran on ABC nearly 10 years later, from April 1963 to September 1964, the blacklist remained in effect, blocking one of America’s great folk singers (though he would never have called himself that) from singing on a national television show touted as devoted to folk music.
Seeger wasn’t the only folk singer I never saw on “Hootenanny,” however. I later learned why.
Less than a year after “Hootenanny” went off the air, in the summer of 1965, I held one of the then-ubiquitous transistor radios to my ear one night in Raton, New Mexico, and heard a sound on a new record that forever changed the way I listened to music — something raw, unadorned, visceral, from the gut, six minutes of what even then my young ears defined as pure poetry from the streets set to a rock beat: Bob Dylan singing, chanting, rapping “Like a Rolling Stone.”
I had never heard anything like it before, or since, but I knew I wanted to learn all I could about the creator of such revolutionary music, as well as those who’d inspired him.
As a result, I would later learn why, along with Seeger, I’d never seen artists such as Dylan, Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary, The Kingston Trio and Tom Paxton — another Oklahoman — on “Hootenanny.” Because the program’s powers-to-be had blacklisted Seeger, then Dylan, Baez, et al., had blacklisted “Hootenanny,” so to speak, refusing to appear on a TV show that treated the great American folk singer unfairly.
I would also learn that during that groundbreaking year of 1965, Dylan had outraged many folk purists at the Newport Folk Festival by — gasp! — daring to play an electric guitar instead of an acoustic one, supposedly a prerequisite at the time for many in the folk music in-crowd, which not only had claimed Dylan for its own, but also felt entitled to chart the artistic direction for the young lion as well.
Many in the crowd at Newport that night booed Dylan, although those who were there said many were cheering also.
Ironically, one of the stories that gained credence through the years supposedly had Seeger looking for an ax to chop the cables leading to amplifiers blasting Dylan’s new rock music across the hallowed grounds of the Newport festival site.
Seeger later denied the accuracy of the story, but did say he’d been among those shouting at the stage —but only in an effort to let Dylan know that the cacophony from the guitars, drums and organ were blasting over Dylan’s vocals, making it difficult to hear — much less understand — his words.
I myself had doubted the story about Seeger and the ax all along. I just couldn’t see Seeger, the Johnny Appleseed of American song, trying to deny anyone the right to be heard.
Which comes again to the House Un-American activities persecution of Seeger in the 1950s and the subsequent blacklisting of the ebullient singer.
Many of the causes Seeger sang of — civil rights, environmentalism, the rights of workers to organize —are now deeply woven into the American fabric.
The House Un-American Activities investigations led by then-Sen. Joe McCarthy were soon widely discredited.
But Seeger sang and strummed on, delivering his message to a world sorely in need of his calming balm, often armed with only his banjo.
As it turned out, it didn’t matter so much if Seeger had been blacklisted by “Hootenanny,” which was shot at a different college campus each week.
Around that time, Seeger embarked on a tour of college campuses on his own, taking his message directly to America’s youth and then, as throughout his career, getting them to join him in massive sing-alongs of the American song.
He not only sang traditional songs, but wrote his own songs too, which will no doubt continue to be sang around campfires 100 years from now if the world endures that long.
How could the writer, or adapter, of songs such as “We Shall Overcome,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” “If I Had a Hammer” and “Wimoweh,” now better known as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” be considered anything but an American treasure?
One of Seeger’s greatest songs, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” has lyrics adapted from the Bible — Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3, to be exact: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”
Wherever people join together to celebrate America traditional music and the natural beauty of the country, to uplift the downtrodden and cut down injustice, Seeger’s spirit will endure.
And yes, a song will rise.
Contact James Beaty at firstname.lastname@example.org.