Pete Seeger is one of those artists who have always been there on the periphery; my mother liked (still does, as far as I know) folk music and when I took up the guitar, I inherited several songbooks containing chestnuts like Where have all the flowers gone and the like.
Reading about the man as I grew older, I learned the story of how he allegedly almost took an axe to the wiring during Dylan’s first electrical set (It turns out he didn’t, though he admittedly thought it was an infernal racket.); I learned about his political activism and him being an outspoken communist, though he later denounced the Soviet union; I read about how he was blacklisted during the McCarty years and how it took years before he was allowed back into the public eye. It was an eventful life, no matter how you looked at it.
Regardless, it was the music that mattered in the end. I won’t lie: I don’t often sit and listen to his recordings. Truth to be told, I don’t think he was much of a singer, and there are many versions of his songs out there that are far lovelier. (I suppose it may be less truthful, but give me a nice harmony any day.)
Truthfully, though, it doesn’t much matter. Whether it was Seeger originals, or songs he collected and recorded, they’re the kind of songs that live their own life and can be remolded and repurposed by pretty much anyone. Without Seeger’s black-and-white original as a jumping-off point, The Byrds couldn’t have colorized Turn, Turn, Turn and beamed it down to us from Heaven.
And cheesy though it may be, the Norwegian incarnation of My Rainbow Race found new relevance when 40.000 people in Oslo sang it to protest the horrific actions of the terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. It was a simple and moving testament to the power of song, and as fine an epitaph as I can think of.