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Ballad of a Nonagenarian

Happy birthday, Pete Seeger.


It would be easy, these days, not to know who Pete Seeger is. If there is a mainstream of American pop culture, down which our capital and attention tend inexorably to flow—with its flotilla of rappers and actors and superstar politicians—Seeger is off on a tributary somewhere, paddling a hand-carved canoe. His prime, in terms of cultural visibility, was almost 60 years ago, when “Goodnight Irene,” a song he sang wholesomely with his wholesome band, the Weavers, went to No. 1. Even then, Seeger was mainly trying to be culturally invisible. Although he’s been fluent in music since childhood (by age 6 he could play the organ, piano, marimba, and squeezebox), he has always resisted stardom, preferring to be a conduit, a curator, an organizer, and a collaborator. It was almost a blessing, then, that on the brink of serious commercial success, Seeger was forced to drop off the map: He was accused of being a Communist, then blackballed after his politely defiant testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. (“I can only infer from your lack of interest in my songs,” he said, “that you are actually scared to know what these songs are like.”) He didn’t return to network TV for seventeen years, which guaranteed that his career would play out exactly as he wanted it to: deep in the grassroots, untroubled by the pressures of staying pure or selling out. (He quit the Weavers after they agreed to do a cigarette ad.)

Over the decades, Seeger has made no effort to cash in on his longevity, to adjust his brand or repackage the old highlights as fresh commodities. “I always hated the word career,” he has said. “It implies that fame and fortune are what you’re trying to get. I have a life’s purpose.” He turns 90 this week, the same age as women’s suffrage, the Green Bay Packers, and Grand Canyon National Park. As he prepares to be fêted at Madison Square Garden by a lineup of musical megastars—Springsteen, Vedder, Matthews, Baez, et al.—Seeger remains arguably America’s most celebrated anti-celebrity.

I know who Seeger is for two reasons—reasons that, taken together, suggest my life is playing out in some kind of subconscious Oedipal psychodrama with him. First, my father (whose name is also Peter) admires Seeger so deeply he’s even come to resemble him. He has the same beard and hairline, the same attitude of cheerful straitlaced lefty idealism, and the same faith in the transformative power of folk music: He plays his guitar every Sunday at church, agitates musically against global warming, and subscribes to Sing Out! magazine. Some of the most memorable nights of my childhood were spent listening to my father harmonize around campfires, on church retreats or at backwoods Oregon hippie festivals amid topless women and clouds of marijuana smoke, playing talking blues or Lutheran hymns or protest songs or (to me, as I drifted off) an old German lullaby.

As the son of a Seegerite, I am not myself a full proponent of Seegerism. Like sons everywhere, I assembled my own taste-set in careful, loving counterpoint to my father’s. I practice a kind of inverted Seegerism. I’ve held on to all my hair but cannot, for the life of me, grow a decent beard. I love the acoustic guitar but prefer its wielders to be skilled in the kind of anti-folk postures (irony, sarcasm, hip indirection) that ward off, rather than attract, earnest crowds. I’ve always favored Dylan over Seeger, since his melodies and rhymes are unexpected and hard to convert into voting platforms. I even have a deep and guilty aversion to singing with crowds; when a performer asks me to hum or wave my arms, or to chant “Ay-yippie yo-yi, yippie yippie yay-yo” at every third offbeat before the bridge, I tend to just sit there, silently, enduring it like a terrible gas pain. Seeger, for me, is the hub around which a bunch of difficult existential issues pivot: irony versus earnestness, cleverness versus vulnerable honesty, isolation versus community, keeping quiet versus singing out.

Seeger is, quite literally, a folk hero—in the sense that he collected, wrote, and popularized many of America’s essential songs: “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “We Shall Overcome.” (It was originally “We Will Overcome”; Seeger thought the vowel in “shall” made it sound more dramatic.) But he is also a folk hero in the sense that Paul Bunyan is a folk hero. His nine decades seem almost mythic, complete with a perfect origin story, trials, dangers, and big quixotic inspirational victories—all of which are recounted engagingly in Alec Wilkinson’s new book-length essay, The Protest Singer. (Wilkinson wrote the book, as Seeger requested, to be read in one sitting; he calls it “a factual novella.”)

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