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If you caught the recent Obama inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, you probably saw an overjoyed Pete Seeger leading the audience in a rousing rendition of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." Seeger has received numerous awards over the years — a Kennedy Center honor, a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, a National Endowment for the Arts medal, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a Cuban human rights honor, even a Harvard Arts Medal for the Harvard dropout — and, yet, at the Lincoln Memorial, he looked like nothing could've pleased him more than simply living long enough to experience this momentous occasion in American history. And, believe it, Pete Seeger has experienced firsthand some of the very best and very worst that this nation has had to offer during his 89 years on the planet.
"Legend" is among the most overused words in the pop culture lexicon — but if the term applies to anyone, it's Pete Seeger. Taking a cue from his good friend Guthrie — he of the guitar that read: "This machine kills fascists" — Seeger used his banjo to both create new songs and popularize old folk tunes, which eventually placed him at the forefront of the American labor, civil rights, anti-war and environmental movements. To use just one small, yet extremely important, example, he was the first to popularize the old spiritual, "We Shall Overcome," as the anthem of the '60s civil rights struggle. Seeger's own banjo, by the way, featured the words: "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender."
He rose to pop music prominence in the early '50s as one-fourth of the Weavers, who placed numerous old folk songs, including Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene," at the top of the era's "hit parade." Alas, Seeger, who joined the American Communist Party during American labor struggles (as many of his generation did), was blacklisted during the Joe McCarthy-led "red scare" of the '50s. Even as late as the early '60s, the network TV folk music show, Hootenanny, refused to book Seeger, even though some of his tunes were performed by others on the show. (To their credit, a few of the era's most popular folkies, including Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, refused to play Hootenanny in deference to their hero).
In some ways, Seeger was an odd choice for rock 'n' roll icon — he, after all, was reportedly the person most offended when Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Nevertheless, several of his songs became hits for mid-period rockers, as well as rock-era folk superstars, including the Byrds ("Turn, Turn, Turn!"), as well as Trini Lopez and Peter, Paul & Mary ("If I Had a Hammer") and the Kingston Trio and Johnny Rivers (who both had hits with "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"). And in 2006, Bruce Springsteen released and toured the world behind We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, a collection of folk tunes associated with Seeger that metaphorically said everything there was to be said about the tragedies of both post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans and the Iraq War. If one needs further examples of the man's continued appeal, check out YouTube for a video of Joan Baez singing the timeless "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" three years ago at a Washington, D.C. rally for Mothers Against the Iraq War. In a word, it's gorgeous.
Metro Detroiters have two opportunities to experience this great and gentle man in person this week — the first as one of the headliners at the 32nd Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival, and then, the following afternoon, as a participant on a panel entitled "Rise-Up: Activism Through the Arts, Profiling From McCarthyism to the Present" at Dearborn's Arab-American National Museum. These events present two wonderful and increasingly rare opportunities to see a genuine living legend in action. —Bill Holdship
Saturday, Jan. 31, at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival at the Ark (316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor; 734-761-1818) with Kris Kristofferson and others. (Friday's lineup features Jeff Tweedy and Old Crow Medicine Show, among others.)
Sunday, Feb. 1, 1-2:30 p.m. at the Arab-American National Museum (13624 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-582-2266); admission is free.
Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org