Friday, March 20, 2015

Remembering Pete Seeger -- Part Three

One of Pete's many friends in the music business was Johnny Cash -- the fabled Man in Black. Cash himself had been a bit of an outlier in the country music establishment. No doubt, some eyebrows were probably raised  when he married June Carter, whose legendary family were country music's royalty and pioneers of recorded music for the masses. Cash had a fierce independence musically. His songs were the brooding homilies of a man who chose his own path and vision, and who wrestled with his demons.

I'm unaware if Johnny Cash ever stated publicly his views on the Vietnam War while the US was still involved, but this song provides some clues. 

Stylistically, Singing in Vietnam Talkin' Blues is pure Woody Guthrie, who, coincidentally, had taught Pete how to perform talking blues. Cash's two final verses surely are a departure from President Nixon's aspirations to "peace with honour." Certainly, nowhere in the tune does Cash invoke the necessity to fight Communism. Rather boldly, Cash muses about going back to Vietnam after the troops have come home.  
So we sadly sang for them our last song,And reluctantly we said: "So long."We did our best to let 'em know that we care,For every last one of 'em that's over there.Whether we belong over there or not.Somebody over here love's 'em, and needs 'em.
Well now that's about all that there is to tell,About that little trip into livin' hell.And if I ever go back over there any more,I hope there's none of our boys there for me to sing for;I hope that war is over with, And they all come back home,To stay.
In peace.
The song was performed on The Johnny Cash Show on March 17, 1971, late in the series' run. The program began as a summer replacement series in in June of 1969, and then was picked up for the regular fall schedule. The musical segments make for great viewing these many decades later -- Johnny trades tunes Kris Kristofferson, Gordon Lightfoot, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Arlo Guthrie, Jose Feliciano, Linda Rondstat, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and, of course, Pete Seeger. Pete and Johnny had been friends for some years.

ABC and Screen Gems Television were reluctant to have Pete on the show. At its peak, Johnny's show hit seventeenth place in the Neilson's, and executives relented. A documentary film crew followed Pete to the taping, and we see some revealing moments: Seeger is reticent to appear. Cash affirms his loyalty to Seeger and his desire to see him vindicated. It would be naive to think that Cash hadn't placed his television career in jeopardy by hosting Pete.


Cash and Seeger are shown crafting the segment from a tentative script. Giving Pete a nineteenth century fretless banjo was a master stroke -- Pete had been instrumental in preserving the five-string banjo, an obscure instrument by the time he had encountered it. His playing in the segment is old-time at its best. I would conjecture that only a handful of banjoists were really well known to TV viewers at the time -- especially viewers who weren't fans of country music: Earl Scruggs, Grandpa Jones, and Roy Clark come to mind. Though not known particularly as a bluegrass player, Pete is remembered as one of the great players of his generation, and playing that fretless re-estabilished his gravitas as folklorist, and a preservationist of American traditions.

Later in the segment Pete goes over to an old wooden chair, redolent of the sparse furnishings of the Rainbow Quest set, and begins to lead the audience in singing Worried Man Blues, a fabled old-time song recorded by The Carter Family in 1930 and Cash himself in 1969. The song's been recorded by everyone from Van Morrison to Devo!

This video shows Pete's entire performance with Johnny in greater quality.

Though its origins are unknown, I've often used the song Worried Man Blues during Black History Month as a means of explaining the transition from slavery to Jim Crowe in the USA. Progress perhaps, but not freedom -- very much Pete's message during his spoken word interlude.


I really didn't know where these three entries about Pete would take me. Chronologically, I've scratched at about fifteen years of a musical career that spanned eight decades. And it seems I've written mostly about the difficulty Pete had getting on US television. Despite the many hundreds of recordings, and thousands of performances, TV wasn't Pete's medium for the most part. His lack of a significant career in television does not diminish his extraordinary cultural and political legacy. But when he did make it onto the small screen, it was not only great television, it was history-making.

One of his final appearances on television is perhaps one of the grandest moments in folk music history. Flanked by Bruce Springsteen and his grandson, musician Tao Rodriguez Seeger, Pete performs Woody's song This Land Is Your Land at the inauguration of America's first black President. Performing at Pete's ninetieth birthday celebration -- The Clearwater Concert at Madison Square Garden -- Springsteen describes preparations for the performance:
And I asked him how he wanted to approach "This Land Is Your Land". It would be near the end of the show and all he said was, "Well, I know I want to sing all the verses, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote, especially the two that get left out, about private property and the relief office." I thought, of course, that's what Pete's done his whole life. He sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we'd like to leave out of our history as a people. At some point Pete Seeger decided he'd be a walking, singing reminder of all of America's history. He'd be a living archive of America's music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people, and despite Pete's somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant, and nasty optimism. Inside him he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade and it won't let him take a step back from the things he believes in. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country's illusions about itself. Pete Seeger still sings all the verses all the time, and he reminds us of our immense failures as well as shining a light toward our better angels and the horizon where the country we've imagined and hold dear we hope awaits us.
I'm happy to report that spirit... is with us in the flesh tonight. He'll be on this stage momentarily, he's gonna look an awful lot like your granddad who wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He's gonna look like your granddad if your granddad could kick your ass.
To close, here's Tao Rodriguez Seeger, Pete Seeger, and Bruce Springsteen.

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