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Leonard Earl Johnson covered Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005), and the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for Consumer Affairs.com. He is a contributor to Gambit Weekly, New Orleans Magazine, SCAT, Baton Rouge Advocate, Advocate Magazine, The Times-Picayune, and Country Roads Magazine, and the books FRENCH QUARTER FICTION (Light of New Orleans Publishing), LOUISIANA IN WORDS (Pelican Publishing), LIFE IN THE WAKE (NOLAfuges.com), and more. Johnson is a former Merchant Seaman, and columnist at Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans; and African-American Village. Attended Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship at Piney Point, Maryland. Winner of the Press Club of New Orleans Award for Excellence, 1991, and given the Key to The City and a Certificate of Appreciation from the New Orleans City Council for a Gambit Weekly story on murder in the French Quarter.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pete Seeger, New Orleans and Lafayette, May 2009

Yours Truly in a Swamp

May 2009

Pete Seeger's photographs were made in 1983
Photo credits: Leonard Earl Johnson

Reprinted from Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans

Pete Seeger,
In New Orleans and Lafayette

by
Leonard Earl Johnson

* * *

Pete Seeger appeared the first week of the 2009 New Orleans Jazz Fest, and turned ninety the next week.

He opened on the Acura Stage with Midnight Special, a song made famous by Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, of Mooringsport, and the Louisiana State Prison at Angola.


After his performance, Seeger told a story about an invitation to sing at "a little music festival in Lafayette," back in the time of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.


HUAC was a political witch-hunting committee. Seeger was offended at being forced to appear and testified to the tune of his accompanying Constitutional right to think anything he wanted without telling them what those thoughts might be. This was in the middle 1950s, when he was a very popular figure in the American folk music revival. He was a famous artist with famous principles.



* * *


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 New York 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. 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, on the corner of Frenchmen and Dauphine. It was my good fortune to interview and photograph him and his long-neck twelve-string guitar.


Afterwards, we walked back to my apartment, Squalor Heights, to hear Sweet Emma Barrett records. Seeger loved her cover of Jelly Roll Blues (Available through George H. Buck Records, "Sweet Emma Barrett and Her New Orleans Music," GHB-141). Later he wrote about it in the magazine, Sing Out.


That day, on our way to Squalor Heights, Seeger wore a Medieval looking pointed cap with a long peacock feather that dipped and bobbed behind us as we stepped across Faubourg Marigny curbs and stoops. I vainly wondered if anyone seeing us would recognize we were walking in the company of the great Pete Seeger.


* * *

In New York City, that following Fall, a New York University student on a downtown subway listened to our gush about Seeger, whom we had met for lunch on Fifty Seventh Street. The student was showing out-of-towner me where to get off in the East Village, and listened politely to our boasts of touching greatness, then said, "I do not know who Pete Seeger is."


One thing Seeger is is political, in the true style of a troubadour. His early days were spent roaming with Woody Guthrie, whose own guitar famously boasted his hand painted slogan: "This machine kills fascists." Guthrie wrote and sang significant songs, like This Land Is Your Land. Both men were union supporters and likely candidates to someday lock horns with reactionary Congressmen.


In the 1940-50s, Seeger's popular folk-revival group, The Weavers, had enormous Billboard hits, like On Top of Old Smoky, and the perennial Gulf Coast favorite, Shrimp Boats Are A Coming. He is 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 first Jazz Fest day in New Orleans.


* * *

Back in Washington, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee charged him 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 whole world what he thought.


A resulting smear campaign led Seeger to being banned from American music clubs and media outlets. They feared the smear might smudge them, and their clubs and media outlets would themselves be pushed off the stage.


He 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 for now middle-aged handshakes from grateful camp kids.

Seeger's television ban was not lifted until his 1967 appearance on the brave Smothers Brothers Comedy Show.


* * *

The Lafayette Story

Pete Seeger: "It was 1955, The House Committee on Un-American Activities had questioned me about my political beliefs, and I said, 'It's America, I have a right to think anything I want, but I don't have to discuss it unless I want to.'


"They said, 'That's not
sufficient.'


"I had been asked
to come down (to Lafayette) and sing some songs at a little festival. They (festival organizers) said, 'Mr. Seeger, this evening we're going to have a little party, so you can hear some of our local music.'


"Well, at the door, they said, 'Pete Seeger, meet Congressman Edwin E. Willis'."


(Edwin Edwards Willis was the Louisiana Democrat, from nearby Arnaudville, who served as chair of the Un-American Activities Committee, 1963-69.)


"Well, he did a double-take, and I did, too.
"They said, 'Let's get some singing going,' and Willis glowered in the corner.

"Later, he (Willis) said, 'Mr. Seeger, it's a small world. How did you get here?'


"I said, 'Well, I was invited.'

"He said, 'Who invited you?'


"I said, 'The Chamber of Commerce.'


"Willis was not amused, or appeased. He said, 'Well, you're not welcome.'


"I went on to California. I didn't want to make trouble for anybody."

Copyright, 2009, Leonard Earl Johnson

* * *



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