I’ve seen Pete Seeger sing about 32 times. This is no exaggeration; it may be an undercount. He would appear at various antiwar and anti-nuke campaigns in the mid-Hudson Valley of New York State. One of the first times I saw him was at a George McGovern rally in New Paltz, my college town, in 1972. Once, I went on the Clearwater, where he performed.
When a number of people protested the Springboks, the South African rugby team, playing in Albany, Pete was there singing in the rain. The one time I actually saw Pete in concert was April 4, 1982 at Page Hall in the downtown SUNY Albany campus.
But his impact on my life long preceded seeing him perform. My father owned his “We Shall Overcome” album; it was as pivotal in my appreciation of music as any Beatles or other pop album; my review of the expanded CD release is here My father was a singer of folk songs, performing regionally in the Binghamton, NY area, and he often sang songs that Pete, or friends of his such as Woody Guthrie, had popularized. And I saw him perform “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on the Smothers Brothers show in 1968, which helped crystallize my opposition to the Vietnam war.
I think Pete’s taken some unfair criticism. About Dylan going electric, Pete is quoted as saying, “There are reports of me being anti-him going electric at the ’65 Newport Folk festival, but that’s wrong. I was the MC that night. He was singing ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and you couldn’t understand a word because the mic was distorting his voice. I ran to the mixing desk and said, ‘Fix the sound, it’s terrible!’ The guy said ‘No, that’s how they want it.’ And I did say that if I had an axe I’d cut the cable! But I wanted to hear the words. I didn’t mind him going electric.”
And the late Phil Ochs castigated him, unfairly, in this couplet from Love Me, I’m a Liberal:
“I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts
He sure gets me singing those songs.”
I’m happy that Bruce Springsteen has spread the gospel of Seeger in a couple of his recent albums. In fact, the first time I heard Springsteen do Seeger was on the Where Have All The Flowers Gone compilation which came out in 1998 and I bouught 3 or 4 years later; recommended.
A couple recent Pete Seeger collections I’ve seen, but have not yet purchased: American Favorite Ballads Volumes 1-5 [Box] [4/21/09] and Rainbow Race/ Now/ Young Vs. Old [4/21/09].
Happy birthday, Pete.