Thursday, March 19, 2015

Remembering Pete Seeger -- Part Two

Pete Seeger's iconic long-kneck five-string
banjo with its enduring message.
Pete Seeger's defiant appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee hurt not only his prospects for appearing on television, but also prevented him from getting bookings in major concert halls in the US. Pete continued to tour and work where he could. International audiences were more obliging, as his music was known around the world. He had a unique arrangement with Folkways Records, which allowed him to record whenever inspiration struck. Many children's songs would be added to his repertoire as he even toured summer camps for kids around the world. This young audience would grow up and pay money to see him perform on college campuses.

Still, Pete was denied access to US television during the second folk boom of the early sixties.

A touchstone moment in the sixties folk boom was the 1963-64 television show Hootenanny, which featured popular folk and pop artists of the day. The name hootenanny, referring to a gatherings of folk musicians, had been popularized in urban culture by Seeger and Woody Guthre. Pete and Toshi -- back in hungrier days past -- had participated in and organized "hoots" as rent parties. Several artists, including Joan Baez, refused to appear on the program as long as Pete was blacklisted.

But the Seegers found their own way onto the small screen, if only for a time. Pete's work ethic and popularity, combined with Toshi's frugality and industry, resulted in the low-budget but highly acclaimed Rainbow Quest television program on the New York City affiliate of PBS. Despite an astonishing lineup of artists -- Judy Collins, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Mississippi John Hurt, Johnny Cash and June Carter,  Malvina Reynolds, and the New Lost City Ramblers -- the audience for the program was limited by technology of the day. Pre-cable public broadcast stations, like independent channels, were essentially off the dial. The could only be viewed on television sets with a second, UHF dial and a special antenna. Unable to expand the show's viewership by moving it to more markets, the project was shelved after one year in 1966, having produced thirty-nine 52-minute episodes, which are widely available today.

One of my favourite segments from Rainbow Quest features Judy Collins singing Turn, Turn, Turn, accompanied by Pete on his 12-string and filling in the harmonies. This is Pete's voice at its very best. Though listed in the closing credits as "chief cook and bottle washer," Toshi Seeger also became the de facto director of the program, instructing the camera operators. Judy Collin's face is tightly framed for much of the song, and her eyes are locked on Pete's. The language here is unmistakeable: A young emerging artist were telling Pete thank-you, and is pledging to carry his message forward to another generation.

"Gee, how proud that makes me," Pete says, as he ends the segment. 

Wikipedia: Post-war housing project in Levittown, 
Pete continued to write and perform anti-war songs. In addition to Turn, Turn, Turn, whose lyrics came from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, Pete's Dangerous Songs!? album, included Len Chandler's Beans In My Ears. A central character in Beans "Alby Jay," redolent of "LBJ," the initials and nickname of President Johnson. The song was a veiled anti-war anthem. Little Boxes, another hit for Seeger, by Malvena Reynolds, satirized middle class conformity. 

Waist Deep In The Big Muddy was Seeger's own scathing indictment of Lyndon Johnson, who is represented as an incompetent army captain leading a platoon across a river on manoeuvres in 1942 Louisiana. Despite the protests of the men, the captain is determined to make the crossing, finally drowning. The sergeant takes command returns the platoon to safety. In the lyrics, Pete connects the tale to the Vietnam War in the final verse:
Every time I read the papers that old feeling comes on
We were waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on.
Pete's chance to make his mark on the anti-Vietnam War movement came on September  19,1967, when he was invited to appear on the second-season premiere of the popular Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The website ChimesFreedom describes Pete's first appearance on the program and network efforts to censor him:
This video below shows the Pete Seeger segment as it was broadcast, with “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” cut out. At 1:12, after the Seeger segment opened with Seeger already singing “Wimoweh” with the audience, watch where Seeger has a banjo. Then a few seconds later after a cut, he is holding a guitar. After “Wimoweh,” he sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” during the taping. But since CBS cut out the song, we see Seeger next singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” with a different instrument.

The edit was clumsy. As Tom Smothers is interviewing Pete, the folk singer is quietly playing the opening chords to Waist Deep in the Big Muddy. Tom and Dick Smothers were irate, according to the article above, and made no secret of CBS's duplicity. Pete was brought back on the February 23rd, 1968, to perform Waste Deep in the Big Muddy.

Three days later, the entry continues, Walter Cronkite, also on CBC, declared US efforts in Vietnam to be "mired in stalemate" -- a rare editorial from one of America's most-respected broadcast journalists. Within weeks, his approval ratings in free-fall and his upstart challengers Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy gaining electoral ground in the Democratic primaries, President Johnson announced he would not seek or accept the party's nomination. No one's ever suggested that Pete alone triggered the fall of Johnson, but Seeger was sure-as-Hell there when it happened. 

Continued activism against the Vietnam War would eventually get the Smothers Brothers taken off the air as well.

Next up. Pete does the Johnny Cash Show.

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