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Wednesday 24 September 2014

Rebel Pete Seeger overcome at 94

Tim Stanley

Published 29/01/2014 | 02:30

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Singer Pete Seeger performs at the 2009 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize special outdoor tribute at Hunts Point Riverside Park on September 3, 2009 in New York City

PETE Seeger, the banjo-picking troubadour who sang for migrant workers, college students and star-struck presidents has died at the age of 94.

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"He was chopping wood 10 days ago," his grandson, Cahill-Jackson said.

When he celebrated his 90th birthday, Bruce Springsteen reportedly said to him: "You outlasted the bastards, man."

When he passed away this week it represented the death of a vision as well as a singer.

Not only were his songs beautiful in a musical sense, but beautiful also in that they tried to elevate the listener – to prick the conscience with poetry.

IDEALISTIC

The lyrics of 'If I Had a Hammer' or 'Where Have All The Flowers Gone?' might have been naive, but at least they were idealistic. And, whatever the critics claimed, Seeger's ideals were all-American in spirit.

The Harvard-educated Seeger came from an established Yankee family that could trace its roots back to the American Revolution. But he rejected a life of privilege for a musical crusade that would see him lend his guitar to every cause from nuclear disarmament to environmentalism.

Today, those causes are dubbed "fashionable" because their posters adorn every student's wall, and Seeger himself grew into a parody of the Left-wing guru: beard, sweater and banjo.

But he first sang his songs in an age when it was not only controversial but genuinely courageous. He signed up with the Communist Party and got himself convicted of contempt of Congress and blacklisted as a performer. It's impossible to excuse Seeger's communism but it can be explained. For thousands of Americans in the early 20th Century, socialism wasn't "dialectical materialism" but an anti-racist, anti-war rejection of what they felt industrial capitalism had done to their beloved republic.

The old American Left in many ways wanted a return to the Jeffersonian ideal of a republic of farmers; a United States comprised of a patchwork of individuals doing their own thing.

Seeger inherited the same tradition as Woody Guthrie – the tradition of the protest movements which articulated their demands with popular folk songs rewritten to empower the common man.

Contained within this folk ethic was a horror of modernity, a disgust at what it was doing to the landscape that was every American's by birthright.

Seeger's stance in that fight was sincere. He took his family to live in the woods, where they hauled water from a brook, grew their own food and survived for a while without electricity. It was a rugged, all-American, quietly conservative rejection of the plastic modernity that Norman Mailer called "the social equivalent of cancer".

And, like the cultural equivalent of a survivalist, Seeger maintained his artistic purity.

Think of what happened to so many of the other protest artists of his period.

When Bob Dylan premiered his new electric style at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, legend has it that Seeger tried to cut off the performance with an axe. Pete later explained that he couldn't hear his protege's words above the noise.

Peter, Paul and Mary split and reformed so often they became music's Taylor and Burton. Leonard Cohen turned to cheese. And Phil Ochs, too beautiful for this world, hanged himself.

By contrast, Seeger seemed unbowed by the disappointments of the Sixties. This living relic of folk remained unfussy, upbeat, always marching. His songs didn't just complain but provided solutions, even if the solution was as simple as everyone getting round a campfire and imagining what could be done with a hammer.

Nowadays, where has all the folk protest gone? Mainstream, popular folk is sadly embodied by Mumford & Sons – a group so unradical that David Cameron is a fan.

Protest where it can be found is nihilist. Hip hop is about people trapped in ghettos with no hope of escape and no vision of what the alternative is. And their stars tend to choose bling over the simple life. Can you imagine Kanye West living without electricity?

Seeger's music harked back to an America that was freer and simpler than the one that exists today. And he didn't just want to mourn its passing but to make the case for its renewal. In his own words: "The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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