While driving to work this morning I heard the news that Pete Seeger died yesterday at the ripe old age of 94. Pete Seeger was called a lot of things in life – among them musician, author, peace advocate, teacher, environmentalist, political activist and through them all he remained true to who he was and what he believed in. As a teacher he introduced his style of banjo playing to the nation in a groundbreaking instructional book he wrote in the early 1960s- How to Play the 5 String Banjo. As a musician he recorded more than 50 albums and either wrote or co-wrote many songs you are sure to have heard- Where Have all the Flowers Gone, If I Had a Hammer, Turn Turn Turn etc. As an environmentalist, he had a boat built (called the Clearwater )that sailed up and down the Hudson River to bring attention to the amount of pollution people and industry were dumping into it. As a political activist he found himself in front of Congress being questioned about his political ideas (and he refused to answer those questions too), and was well known as a labor advocate and a civil rights advocate. To say that he led a fascinating life would be a great understatement.
Pete was known as a folk musician and not an Appalachian musician, but I am including him here today because when he published How to Play the 5 String Banjo, he created and inspired a massive number of banjo players. Even if a person does not today play his style (frailing) there is a very good chance that person started out with Pete’s book. Why? Because there was not any other book to start out with for many years! Pete’s style of playing, is still used today and though it is maybe not the most popular style in old-time music, it is present and is a definite base that many players start with.
In the musical section of his life, Pete was a member of The Weavers, an important folk group, friends and musical partners with Woody Guthrie, started and wrote for Sing Out magazine. He won a Grammy in 1996 and that year he was also inducted in the Rock and Roll hall of fame. He was honored in the Kennedy Center.
Another musical job Pete Seeger had in his lifetime was to work at the Library of Congress in the American Folklife Center with musicologist Alan Lomax. While there he listened to and collected folk songs for the national collection. Alan Lomax had a radio show at the time and Pete was a frequent musical guest on it. This was in the 1940 timeframe and helped pave the way for his musical career.
The political section of his life is a complicated one. In his younger years, Pete Seeger was a member of the Communist Party but later renounced it when he became disenchanted with Stalin. He and many of his friends were blacklisted in the McCarthy era. He fought all his life, even to the end for civil rights and equality. He was among those participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Not everyone will agree with his politics, but I think we can all respect his dedication and commitment to his beliefs. I think the fact that he went from being blacklisted in the McCarthy Era to being honored in the Kennedy Center speaks volumes.
But none of that is what I thought of when I heard the news. My first thought was of why my own children probably know his name. Abiyoyo.
One of the Pete Seeger albums I have is “Abiyoyo and Other Story Songs for Children”. I hadn’t listened to it too many times but on this particular day I needed something to entertain them and so I pulled that record out and put it on the turntable. When the song Abiyoyo came on, we all became interested and all sat and listened. We listened again too.
Over the years, we listened to that old record many times. Many times we read the book at bedtime. Many times I would walk around the house humming the melody and thinking about the giant dancing and swirling around. I have a lot of fond memories that grew from that record and book. So thank you Pete Seeger for all that you did in your fascinating life but most of all thank you for telling us all about Abiyoyo.
In honor of Pete Seeger, I am recommending you read this book. It won’t take long. I think it is a very fitting tribute to the man, it is the story of plain folk fighting a giant through music and dance. Seems fitting to me. Rest in peace Pete.
Pete Seeger May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014.
|Juvenile/Easy – Level 4||PZ7.S4517 Ac 1986||AVAILABLE|