Ballad of a Nonagenarian

Photo: Bruce Davidson/Magnum

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.”)

It’s not hard to see where Seeger got his obsessions. His father was a composer who “thought the great symphonies would save the human race” but who later became a political radical obsessed with the power of folk music. When Pete was a baby, his dad took the family on a disastrous trip down the East Coast, towing a homemade trailer full of instruments in an effort to bring music to good country people. (The trip was called off when baby Pete almost walked into a fire.) The son inherited the father’s impractical sense of mission. As a young man, he dropped out of Harvard, played with Woody Guthrie, and rode in open boxcars around the country, living off his banjo. Eventually, he saved enough to buy a patch of forest on a riverside mountain, cleared two acres of it himself, and built his own cabin out of the logs. In 1949, after Seeger played a concert with the African-American singer Paul Robeson, his car was ambushed by vandals throwing baseball-size stones from point-blank range. (Seeger kept two of the stones and built them into his fireplace.) In the late sixties, a Vietnam veteran, angry about Seeger’s pacifism, showed up at a concert and told him, “I think I should tell you, I came here this afternoon to kill you.” Instead, the man listened to the concert—apparently hearing Seeger’s music for the first time—and said afterward that his anger had been “cleansed.”

Through it all, Seeger remained the idealist’s idealist. After the blackballing let up, he refused a steady TV job because the network asked him to sign a loyalty oath. Instead, he took his family on a shoestring trip around the world to hear native cultures play their native music. Back in America, he protested wars and marched to Montgomery, Alabama. He coordinated the building of a ship called the Clearwater, a replica nineteenth-century sloop that gives educational rides on the Hudson—a campaign that has helped make the formerly poisonous river swimmable for most of its length.

The second reason I know who Pete Seeger is is that a few years ago I ended up moving, totally by accident, all the way across the country from my father to the little town on the Hudson where Seeger has lived for 60 years. I am writing this article, in fact, in an office at the old high school where Seeger once played a controversial concert at the height of the Vietnam War. I see him occasionally around town: tall, rail-thin (he was encouraged to play the banjo because, the musicologist John Lomax said, “he just looked like a banjo”), wearing his knit cap, picking up trash. Every June he serves strawberry shortcake at a festival at our riverfront park, which natives tell me was some kind of flaming toxic waste dump before the Clearwater came around. He’s visited my daughter’s preschool class. I’ve even overcome my crowd-singing aversion, temporarily, to sing Christmas carols with him on Main Street.

One night last fall, before the election, Seeger was scheduled to sing at a local fund-raiser. Instead, at the last minute, he went on Late Night With David Letterman. As a child of the MTV era, I’ve been conditioned to think of celebrity in cynical terms, and Seeger’s choice that night made me doubt, momentarily, the order of the universe. Was the most earnest, community-based man in America really going to blow off a political event with his small-town mates to promote a record on possibly the most ironic show in the history of network television? Was the Seeger legend, after all, too good to be true?

After the fund-raiser, my wife and I sat down and watched Letterman. As soon as Seeger appeared, with his white hair and his jeans and his button-down shirt, I knew order had been restored. His presence was a category error. He went on to give one of the weirdest and most powerful TV performances I’ve ever seen, whisper-singing a springy, earnest tune about the lessons of Martin Luther King Jr. in the post-9/11 world. He asked the crowd to sing along. They were reluctant. He didn’t care, and eventually they gave in. He treated them not like the background setting for his televised conquest of the promotional universe but like what they actually were: a room full of real, individual, aware, responsible, potentially political humans. He transformed a TV audience into a group of men and women. Even though he was 60 miles downriver, in midtown Manhattan, he might as well have been in our living room. That’s the power of Pete Seeger: No matter what he’s doing, no matter what your level of resistance, he always finds a way to make you join in.

Ballad of a Nonagenarian