In a few hours I'm going to the Pete Seeger 90th birthday concert, courtesy Lee and Alice (pbut). In my early teens, some who know me now will be surprised to learn, I was a folky. These days, not so much.
But I am proud to say, I have never once stopped defending Pete Seeger from criticisms aesthetic and political. His instrument is not and never was his voice, nor even his banjo. It was his audience. And he played his audience so brilliantly because he genuinely loved them and trusted them to help make his music, their music.
His politics? About the worst you could say about him is that he was a mush-minded humanist, but dammit, he was our mush-minded humanist. And that would a half-truth at best. It was from him that I first heard the song "I Hate The Capitalist System" by Sarah Ogan, who was active in the Harlan County coal-mining struggles in the '30s (the strike in which Florence Reece wrote "Which Side Are You On?" the song in the video above). And possibly his best instrumental composition for banjo, save only the incomparable "Goofing Off Suite," is his arrangement of the Chinese People's Liberation Army's "Three Rules of Discipline and the Eight Rules of Attention."
Here is a video that brings all these points together. It's one of his greatest compositions, a hymn to optimism of the will and the continuity of the struggle called "Quite Early Morning." It was recorded within the last couple of years in Beacon, NY, and Pete's voice, as he's been telling us for years, is shot. It's freezing cold in the venue where they are taping this. Besides whoever's behind the camera, there are two people in front of him, bundled up on metal folding chairs, and damned if he doesn't get them to chime in on the chorus.
Many happy returns, Pete...
May 3, 2009
posted by Jimmy Higgins