2014-01-28 – Pete Seeger came into my life through many back doors. His works were memes before the word “meme” was coined. I’m not big on pop culture, so when a celebrity penetrates to my consciousness, that’s saying something. It took a while for Pete to dawn on me, but dawn he did. Let me tell you how that happened, as best I can reconstruct. (And believe me, I have to reconstruct, because I was clueless at the time.)
The earliest specific memory I have of a Pete Seeger song is “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” I can date that to sometime before the summer of 1965. That was the summer I went to Camp Ramah in Eagle River, WI. I turned fourteen that year (on 8/09). The camp’s songbook, which was all in Hebrew contained the song “Eifo Hap’rachim Coolam,” which is a rough translation of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” “Matai heim yilmadu?” “When will they ever learn?” Many of the songs in the songbook were translations like this and those were my favorite—if I recognized them. I recognized this one, but probably not from a Pete Seeger recording. I’m guessing I knew about the Peter, Paul, and Mary cover.
Around this time I was struggling to learn to play the guitar. My Aunt Mary and Uncle Morris gave me a guitar for my bar mitzvah the year before, but no one in my family knew anything about guitars. It was difficult to play, probably because the strings were pretty high off the frets (I wouldn’t have known this at the time). I took lessons at my synagogue but no luck. I think I took my guitar to camp that year (not totally sure) and took lessons—with the same result. Nothing.
The next year was my first year in high school. Over the next year or so I went through two guitars, both classical. I don’t remember what the first one was. I think my sister got it. Then I bought a Yamaha guitar for $65. I still have this one. I began to pick up finger picking styles from my friend Ira and one of the early songs we learned was was “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” a simple arpeggio.
I think I may have first became aware of Pete Seeger after I came to Chicago for college in 1969. It may have been the politics. It may have been a late Saturday evening show on WFMT called the “Midnight Special,” which combined traditional folk music with comedy bits. It may have been my first stereo and the Columbia record club where I bought my first LPs. One of the LPs was a two-record set of the Weavers.
Or it may have been the song books. Ira and I worked from a PP&M songbook that taught us more fingerpicking. There were the series of folk singer method books. And there was a book of Weavers songs.
Then there was the five-string banjo I picked up for $10 (that’s it above with slack strings and loose pegs). I taught myself one great song on the banjo, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” which I found in a book called “How to Play the Five-String Banjo,” by Pete Seeger.
It’s probably not much of a story. It’s not a story of a fan. I don’t do fan. But I think the story is a tribute to Pete. Many of the musicians of the era were well identified with their music. Think of the Beatles. Sure they collaborated with people, but the Beatles songbook (which is very great) is the Beatles song and no one else’s. But Pete’s Seeger’s music was a shared enterprise. It’s not Pete’s music. It is our music. On half the songs you think of as a Pete Seeger song, he shared the credit. When PP&M played their encore, it was “If I Had a Hammer,” and it was their song and it was your song because you always sang along with them. When you heard “Turn, Turn, Turn” you knew there would be a time of peace “I swear it’s not too late!”
And when you went on a march and sang “We Shall Overcome” you owned that song together with everyone within earshot. Together with the cops.