FEBRUARY 2, 2014
“Pete, I have heard you play that melody for all of twenty years.”
“Fifteen, but who’s counting?”
— Lee Hays and Pete Seeger on The Weavers at Carnegie Hall (1955)
ONE OF THE FREQUENTLY dismissive terms for the people who grew up in the 1950s was the Silent Generation. In the Cold War era, anyone voicing an opinion that challenged the conservative consensus risked — at best — being called an un-American fellow traveler and dupe (of the Soviet enemy), but silence was hardly the compulsory result. Now, when public performers seem intent on outmatching each other in outrageous behavior, it is hard to remember how important, 50 and more years ago, coolness and detachment were as ideals of personal style.
But the last thing you would say about Pete Seeger, who died the other day at 94, was that he was cool. It may have been cool to wear dark clothes, berets, and shades, and sit in a coffee house listening to folk singers plunking away on their banjos or strumming their guitars. But Pete, the son of a musicologist and one of the most dedicated singers and popularizers of folk music — both American and worldwide — was so corny and open in his enthusiasms he cheerfully relinquished any claim to coolness.
Still, he was a magnet for my generation and for several generations after mine for just that corniness. What exactly was his allure? He had no cool, and it is also hard to say he had any of the familiar varieties of charisma. He was no movie star. Wearing jeans or chinos or nondescript pants, with an obviously worn flannel or some other everyday shirt, scuffed shoes or work boots, he was a raw-boned lanky guy with a raw, reddish complexion and a shock of casually combed hair. His voice wasn’t particularly melodic, sometimes straining for the high notes, and his banjo and 12-string guitar playing was adequate but made no pretensions to being virtuosic.
Lacking most of the usual traits that make for a compelling, “famous” performer, Pete Seeger was instead possessed by song, not as a way to make it in the music business, but because he believed song was the glue, the bond that could bring people together. It didn’t hurt that he had been famously blacklisted from stage and television for refusing to answer questions about his politics to the House Un-American Activities Committee. It didn’t hurt at all that you tended to see him not at official public events but at college folk festivals, peace marches, anti-war demonstrations, or little country fairs put on by the Fellowship of Reconciliation or the American Friends Service Committee. His style was neither commercial nor cool — it was authentic, a style pointedly unaffected and even somewhat raw, like his voice. Other, more commercial singers, like the Kingston Trio, copied some of the songs he helped popularize, but the impression they gave was much too slick, and of course they, in their own pursuit of coolness, would never have dared something so out of scale as Seeger’s almost crazed yodel on “Wimoweh.”
What were his politics? Listening to his music, it was hard to know precisely. Certainly he had been close to the Communist Party and even a member for several years. He performed frequently for left-wing unions in the 1950s, antiwar rallies in the 1960s, and later tended toward environmental causes, especially the cleanup of the Hudson River. His choice of songs was eclectic, ranging from the old English ballads collected by the early folklorist Francis James Child to 19th and 20th century labor songs to Spanish Civil war songs to chain gang songs to gospel songs to African songs to children’s songs — you name it. Of course there were also the Woody Guthrie songs and the Lead Belly songs, which carried with them their own sense of authentic roots in an older, hardly mainstream America. It was one of the many paradoxes of the 1950s — the dipping into the past for inspiration for an authenticity that might energize a debilitating present.
Like the many amateurs who crowded the coffee shops to hear and be heard, when Pete took the spotlight, it was less as a solitary star than as a member of the community. And even more importantly he was determined to create community as well. At a time when the Cold War had repressed so many political impulses, he helped crystallize a sense of unity through the kinship of singing. “You know this song,” he would say “Sing it with me. And then, “I can’t hear you. Sing it louder.”
Coming out of the English 18th century, when folksongs were first being collected and presented as poetry more powerful and authentic than the work of sophisticated writers, there were two main theories of their origins. The dominant one assumed an unnamed but supremely creative bard who composed the original song, which was then distorted by being passed from hand to hand until it reached the present day; collectors therefore tried to restore the original form by scraping away its illegitimate accretions. The other view, a minority one at the time, became what most musicologists believed by the 1950s. It conceived instead of a folk process, by which the song, like a stone in the river, or a pearl in an oyster, was polished over the centuries by a host of anonymous hands until it reached its current state.
Pete Seeger was in this way an embodiment of the folk process, with its roots in community rather than in individual assertion. He was a conduit through which every member of his audience could get in touch with each other and with singers who were far away or long dead. It was a rare event in a time when isolation was the norm. And unlike Facebook or Twitter, where people connect with already like-minded others, a Seeger concert might create those connections on the spot. “You know this song. Sing along.”
Thinking about Seeger’s career in the wake of his death makes me wonder about Inside Llewyn Davis, the recent film by Joel and Ethan Coen that purports to chronicle both the New York folk scene of the 1950s and the career of one singer, said to be inspired by the folksinger Dave Van Ronk. It was an age of real musical ferment in folk, in jazz, and in rock and roll. But aside from the resolute darkness of the storyline — my wife has taken to calling the Coens the Grim Brothers — nothing of this energy, and especially nothing of the optimism and the joy characteristic of Pete Seeger’s kind of folk singing, is present in the film. Instead it follows the rapidly disintegrating career of Llewyn, a solitary, pugnacious, injustice-collecting folksinger whose general air of repellent narcissism is softened only when he sings, often beautifully, his own songs. Otherwise he is total pain in the ass, to his friends, his sister, and everyone else around him. At the end of the film we are back to the beginning, in what has become a typical Coen brother move — the fatal circle from which their characters cannot escape. Llewyn has insulted an actual, authentic folk singer, an older woman clearly from the Appalachians playing her autoharp, and is beaten up in the alley by her husband, who regrets, as he says, ever coming to the “cesspool” of Greenwich Village. “Au revoir” says the bleeding Llewyn, as if looking forward to his next, inevitable comeuppance. Meanwhile inside, after a group dressed in the Aran Island sweaters of Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers has sung, the young Bob Dylan comes onto the stage. Llewyn has once again missed the boat.
So what’s the point? Llewyn is the solitary fame seeker, doomed to be disappointed. Perhaps the Coens think he needs a brother to accompany him or be his manager, rather than his critical sister? Always he sings alone, never even in a duet (he had been in a duo earlier, but repudiates it and his dead partner’s talent), and glares when the audience or even a friend tries to join in. For a story about the folk scene of the 1950s, there is little sense of the unconfined energies of the period, the sense of bonding and belonging that someone like Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, or a host of others could elicit in their audiences. Nor is there anything in Inside Llewyn Davis about the politics that the folk movement wore so explicitly on its sleeve.
Pete Seeger was nothing like Llewyn Davis. He was an emissary from the Popular Front of the 1930s, when leftwing politics was merged with American history and ideals through theater, art, and song. He had a long, rich life, long enough to see changes in American culture unimaginable in the 1950s, and he kept singing. And we, whenever we weren’t too cool to do so, sang along with him.
Leo Braudy is the author, most recently, of Trying to Be Cool: Growing Up in the 1950s.