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Pete Seeger


"One thing the musicians can teach the politicians," Pete Seeger once said, "is that not everyone has to sing the melody." In that spirit, rather than recapping Seeger's 75-year career, the breadth of his influence on modern American music, or the upsides and downsides of his politics, this update attempts to highlight some aspects of his life's work that have been relatively underrecognized in the many published obits.

He was a skilled editor whose contributions to "the folk process" were often subtle but significant. Most notably, he was responsible for changing the auxiliary verb in the title of the spiritual "We Will Overcome" to "Shall," noting that "the 'i' in 'will' is not an easy vowel to sing well" and that the change "opened the mouth wider" for "a more open sound." "To Everything There Is A Season" is taken more or less verbatim from the Book of Ecclesiastes, but Seeger's addition of the refrain "turn, turn, turn" gave it a pop hook, distancing it from its Biblical source material, and the one full line he added, "A time for peace—I swear it's not too late," gave it both cultural currency and a timeless concluding message. On a different note (as it were), his customizations of both the traditional banjo and the 12-string guitar made it easier for deeper-voiced singers to accompany themselves on those instruments; popularized by the Kingston Trio and other mainstream folkies, the long-necked banjo, in particular, became closely associated with the sound of "folk music."

He has been rightly praised for his efforts to (as writer Charles Pierce put it) "teach [America] about itself through the music it had forgotten," but he is less recognized as an early and enthusiastic advocate of what we now call "world music." The son of two musicologists, and a teenage apprentice of song collector Alan Lomax, the young Seeger gained an early appreciation for how different cultures blend and fuse through music. Under his guidance, the Weavers hit the post–World War II pop charts with such varied fare as the South African "Wimoweh," the Cuban "Guantanamera," and the Israeli "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena." When the Weavers were blacklisted in the 1950s, Seeger took advantage of his media exile to travel the world, returning to the airwaves with a public-TV show, Rainbow Quest, on which he further explored the various global roots of American music.

Though he always preferred to let others do the singing—especially in his later years, after decades of song-leading had sanded his voice to a reedy croak—he was an artful and nuanced interpreter, capable of pivoting from a tender croon to a righteous holler at the turn of a line. As a young man, his personable "split tenor" (between alto and tenor) voice helped bridge the cultural gap between the rough vocals of his friends Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, whose songs he popularized, and the polished sounds of the Weavers' pop-chart competitors. On his own, his crisp, precise diction evoked both the teacher and the preacher, and ensured that, no matter how large the crowd, his points weren't often missed.

To these ears, all of this is best summed up in "The Bells of Rhymney," Seeger's musical setting of a poem by Welshman Idris Davies. Most others' renditions of the song, cuing off the Byrds' hit remake, declaw it, transforming it into a lilting lullaby, but Seeger never lets the listener forget that it's a protest song, written to criticize the mistreatment of Welsh miners. The song's rhetorical questions are posed twice: first softly, but with some resignation; then more fiercely, stridently, as Seeger hammers out low chords on his 12-string guitar. It has fangs; it has teeth. The melody line soars and falls with the lyrics, echoing both church bells and the call-and-response nursery rhyme on which it's based. Like much of Seeger's work, this version of the song captures a distinctive contribution to an ongoing process.

Pete Seeger died on January 27 at the age of 94. Busgal, Dead People Server Curator, Jim Thornton, and Loki get two points each for the hit.


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