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© 2016, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved
Pete Seeger appeared on stage the first week of the 2009 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival ~ and turned ninety the next week.
He passed away in 2014, at ninety-four. I meant to make mention of his death earlier but other funerals and weddings, Summer parties, heart attacks and Hurricane remembrances littered the path. Seeger was a friend of mine and two, three million others.
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He opened back in 2009 on the Acura Stage, with Midnight Special, a song written by Louisiana native, Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, of Mooringsport, and the Louisiana State Prison at Angola. Leadbelly was a man who literally sang his way out of both Louisiana and Texas state prisons.
Seeger told a story as we walked across festival grounds, about an invitation to sing at "A little music festival in Lafayette," back in the daze of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, circa 1955.
HUAC was a witch-hunting committee born in the heady afterglow of World War Two, and fed by politicians driven to keep on fighting and throwing themselves victory parades. Thought was regulated by these politicians, and poet/troubadour Pete Seeger became their natural HUAC prey.
Offended at being forced to appear before HUAC, Seeger testified to the tune of his Constitutional right to think anything he wanted without telling them what those thoughts might be.
This was in the middle-late 1950s, remember, when Seeger was a very popular figure in the burgeoning American folk music revival of the day. His group, The Weavers, recorded such huge Louisiana hits as Shrimp Boats are Coming, on the back-side of their Billboard bestselling 45-RPM, On Top of Old Smokey. "On the old DECCA label," Seeger said, pausing to great a young Mother with a boy in her arms. "This is why we do it." Everyone smiled and kept walking.
He was a famous artist with famous principles that caused him to hold Congress in contempt for, he said, such un-American activities as HUAC. They indicted him for his contempt, and smeared his reputation. His exact sentence was soft. He served no time, and paid no fine.
("He was convicted in a jury trial of contempt of Congress in March 1961, and sentenced to ten one-year terms in jail -- to be served simultaneously, but in May 1962 an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction." ~ Wikipedia)
"Who wouldn't be locked up today?" L. A. Norma asked. "Even our scrub woman holds today's Congress Critters in contempt!"
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Seeger got fewer gigs after HUAC. And less radio time. Television was new and mattered little. Ironically it later played a huge role in bringing Seeger back on stage ~ more on that in a moment.
The next few years he spent almost camping in a log cabin without running water or electricity that he built near Beacon, in New York's Hudson Valley.
For Every Season
A few generations later, Seeger lost his signature instrument, a long-neck banjo he had designed and built in 1945. It was made to accommodate his long arms and vast voice and set a new standard for banjos that came to be known as The Pete Seeger Banjo.
The lost banjo was found near Seeger's upstate home, in the case he'd painted with his name and phone number. It had fallen from the roof of his car and was sitting poetically alongside a state roadway.
"Waiting for Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to catch up,"
L. A. Norma said.
The young man who found and returned it told reporters that he did not know who Seeger was.
Some years before that, Pete and his wife, Toshi were in New Orleans for an earlier Jazz Fest, and staying in the Faubourg Marigny home of the late Shirley Jensen, across from Washington Square Park on Frenchmen Street. It was my good fortune to interview and photograph him and his long-neck twelve-string guitar.
Afterwards, we walked back to Squalor Heights, my garret apartment, to hear Sweet Emma Barrett records. Seeger loved her cover of Jelly Roll Blues, "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None Of My Jellyroll," available through George H. Buck Records ("Sweet Emma Barrett and Her New Orleans Music," GHB-141). Later Seeger wrote about her in Sing Out!, the sixty-year-plus folk song magazine publishing still today, where he wrote the column, "Appleseed."
That day, on our way to Squalor Heights, Seeger wore a Medieval looking cap with a long peacock feather that dipped and bobbed behind us as he stepped his long body across Faubourg Marigny curbs and stoops. I was thrilled and wondered if anyone seeing us would recognize I was walking in the company of the great Pete Seeger.
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OUR SAILS GROW DISTANT
In New York City that following Fall, a New York University student on a downtown subway listened to my gush about lunch with Pete Seeger ~ we met on Fifty Seventh Street for crab cakes and tofu ice cream! I was on my way back to the East Village, and the student was showing this out-of-towner where to get off. He listened politely to our boast of touching greatness, then said, "I don't know who Pete Seeger is."
One thing Seeger is/was is political, in the candid way of a troubadour. His early days were spent roaming America with Woody Guthrie, whose own guitar famously boasted his slogan: "This Machine Kills Fascists." Guthrie wrote and sang significant songs, like This Land Is Your Land. Both men were union supporters and candidates to someday lock horns with reactionary Washington Congress Critters.
In the 1950s, Seeger's group, The Weavers, had enormous record sales and radio play. Their first Billboard hit, On Top of Old Smoky with Shrimp Boats are Coming on the backside, was followed by Goodnight, Irene, written by Texas / Louisiana prisoner, "Leadbelly." The Weavers' cover of "Irene" stood as the nation's number-one Billboard hit for thirteen weeks. Seeger is also said by many -- though not by him -- to have written the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome.
"All that I did was change 'will' to 'shall,' " he told us, that early Jazz Fest day in New Orleans.
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In Washington, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee charged Seeger with contempt of congress for not telling them his thoughts. An odd situation, given that Seeger was a man who spent his entire life telling the world what he thought.
The resulting smear led Seeger to being banned from music clubs and over the air. Fear spread worry that the smear might smudge them, too, and their clubs and media might themselves be pushed off the national stage.
|Pete Seeger in NOLa, 1983 / © LEJ.org|
Seeger made his living during those days doing small gigs at mostly upstate New York camps for mostly New York City children. At our lunch, years later in Manhattan, we were stopped in every block by middle-aged handshakes from grateful former camp kids.
Seeger's media ban was lifted in 1967 with his appearance on the sometimes brave, sometimes compromised but always cutting-edge, trend-setting and important CBS Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.