For many years, I thought Pete Seeger might go on forever. Yes, the voice--the once piercing tenor--had become as scraggly as his beard but when you saw him up in front of the Lincoln Memorial with Springsteen at the Obama inaugural concert in 2009, he still had that amazing power to lift a crowd into song. I can't even imagine "We Shall Overcome" without hearing him shout out the next line in between the singing multitude.
And when at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony in 1994, President Bill Clinton described him as “an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them", I could only think that I'd never seen anyone who looked more uncomfortable in black tie. Most of all, he managed to outlast most of his tormentors--all the small-minded reactionaries who despised the words "peace" and "freedom" until they suddenly decided to appropriate them.
He was a living exemplar of the folk tradition--the way songs evolved by being sung over the years. Rarely was the origin of any of his most famous ones clear. This was as true of "We Shall Overcome" as it was of "Good Night, Irene." And it was heartening to hear on the wonderful NPR obit this morning that his favorite written work was a pamphlet on how to play the five-string banjo, an instrument he carried to new heights.
The sad thing was that so few people had the courage he showed all his life, but especially in the 50s, when McCarthyism had him thrown off TV and made it impossible for him to play major venues. His fans stuck with him, no matter where he played. I remember a friend in college who didn't begin to share Pete's politics but admired the Weavers for getting away with repeating half the songs on every album they released on the next one.
And he encouraged younger performers, including Dylan and Springsteen. I never realized that "If I Had a Hammer" never became a hit until Peter, Paul and Mary did it. (We won't mention Trini Lopez's version--except that it showed how Pete's songs became totally part of the culture.) It's also amazing, but probably not surprising, to learn that he abandoned a privileged background--prep school in Connecticut and Harvard, where he dropped out after two years to travel the country with the likes of Woody Guthrie, clambering aboard trains and picking up folk music first-hand.
So many things about his life and career were chancey, but he made the best out of them all. I always think of that wonderful recording of "Wimoweh" when he led three tenors and the other three members of the quartet in the South African song that it turns out he mistitled by mishearing Solomon Linda, the originator, call it "Mbube".
It was even surprising yet somehow gratifying that unlike his enemies, he had the grace to admit error, as when he told the Washington Post in 1994, “I apologize for once believing Stalin was just a hard driver, not a supremely cruel dictator." And beyond the music, which he personified, and the causes, and the sheer technical brilliance, there's that lingering wistfulness -- the recollection that his death induced that once, there was a real left in the U.S.