Yours Truly in a Swamp,
Monthly e-column by
Leonard Earl Johnson,
of Lafayette and New Orleans
Pete Seeger in New Orleans and Laughingyette
Pete Seeger's photographs, 1983 by Leonard Earl Johnson
Pete Seeger in New Orleans and Lafayette
Leonard Earl Johnson
* * *
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 a year-and-a-half ago, 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.
He opened back in 2009 on the Acura Stage with Midnight Special, a song made famous by Louisiana native, Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, of Mooringsport, and the Louisiana State Prison at Angola -- a man who sang his way out of both Louisiana and Texas prisons.
Seeger told a story 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 political witch-hunting committee born in the heady afterglow of World War Two, and fed by politicians with an abiding drive to keep fighting and throwing themselves victory parades. Thought, loyalty and Pete Seeger became HUAC targets.
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 popular American folk music revival of the day. His group, The Weavers, had such huge hits as Shrimp Boats are Coming, and On Top of Old Smokey.
He was a famous artist with famous principles that caused him to hold Congress in contempt for such un-American activities as HUAC. They indicted him for his contempt of them, and smeared his reputation. His exact sentence was soft and he served no time, 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 would not be locked up if such standards applied today?" L. A. Norma asked.
"Even their scrubwoman holds today's Congress Critters in utter contempt!"
* * *
Seeger got fewer gigs after HUAC. And less radio time. Television was new and mattered little. Later it played a huge role in bringing Seeger back ~ 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 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.
"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 Park 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 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 pointed 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 wondered if anyone seeing us would recognize I was 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 just 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/was is political, in the true honesty 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 Congress Critters.
In the 1950s, Seeger's folk-revival group, The Weavers had enormous record sales and radio play. Their first Billboard hit was On Top of Old Smoky, with the perennial Gulf Coast favorite, Shrimp Boats Comin' on the back side. That 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 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.
The resulting smear campaign led Seeger to being banned from American music clubs and media outlets. They feared the smear might smudge them, too. 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 by now 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 CBS Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
* * *
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."
* * *
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(Don't hold your breath on my figuring out le Internet. I am a storyteller, not a computer-pinball gamer).
Contact me if you want on the list - that may get e-mailed. If you wish to read any month's column they are archived at www.LEJ.org. Each new column is posted on the first of each month and polished for the next few weeks.
Hope you do, I love talking with you,
Leonard Earl Johnson,
Columnist to the elderly and early weary.
© 2015, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved.