The unusual, obscure and fascinating trips to my reel to reel collection, and the offbeat, unknown and one-of-a-kind records from the archives will wait until another day and another post.
My hero is gone.
Pete Seeger, 1919-2014.
For my money, the best singer ever recorded, and that I've ever heard anywhere. No one comes close. His voice was the purest expression of joy, or sadness, or anger, or righteous indignation, or whatever else was called for. In addition, his singing was a natural extension of his speaking voice, unadorned by any embellishment, misguided training or showboating, and that's exactly the sort of singing we don't have enough of today. HIs voice is pure emotion. His voice is the sound of America. His voice is the sound of life being lived well.
And not only that, Pete was without question in my mind, the most important American musician of the 20th century. I'm not saying that based solely on his songwriting or performances - I wouldn't try to support that statement. What I mean is - looking at any prominent musician of the century, and the totality of what each of them did, in all areas, musical or otherwise, again, no one comes close. He was one of the most important Americans of the century, period.
I could support those statements, if I had the time and the space - it would take (and has taken) a book. But instead, just a focus on one important moment from history, and then I have a few of my favorites from Pete's works below.
There is also a much more detailed version of this post, with nearly 20 samples from his career, in a post you can find here.
Before the music, a trip back in time to one of the pivotal events in Pete's life. While he kept up his professional career from 1955-1962 - Pete made at least five albums with the Weavers, and perhaps three dozen albums for Folkways, including hundreds of tracks recorded during that time, in addition to non-stop touring - he was, for that entire period, facing the wrath of the U.S. Government, including what seemed likely to be a likely prison term, essentially for refusing to reveal his private thoughts.
Indeed, the most significant moment of his life I can revisit is what happened when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, to answer charges that he was a communist, among other things.
Many others had cowardly turned over names of friends and former friends to the committee, while even more had reasonably taken the Fifth, which had imperiled if not ended their careers. Pete took a riskier, and flat out ballsier step, one I don't believe anyone else took - he essentially pleaded the First Amendment, telling the panel that, as an American, he had the right to believe whatever he wanted to, and in addition, was entitled to be free from the need to be compelled to reveal those thoughts in such a situation as he was then in. Basically, he told the committee that, under the constitution, his beliefs were none of their business. In 1950's America, those were daring things to say. Read his entire testimony here - it is bracing.
And for this, facing the charges brought, he could have faced a decade in prison - he was actually found guilty and sentenced, although the ten counts of one year each were to be served concurrently - and was under the threat of this sentence for nearly half a decade. It's a good thing he didn't have to serve this term in prison, but a shame that the case was thrown out on a technicality, as it might have been (had it been decided correctly) a nice precedent to prevent or halt similar Congressional abuses in the future.
But all of that was going on while Pete toured the country, spreading the word that through music can come peace and brotherhood, and, not coincidentally, being the key figure in the flowering of the folk revival of that era in the process.
And now, a quick three song sampling of my favorite Seeger tracks, which, again, is greatly expanded on here.
Here's a recording from the Newport Folk Festival. To me, it is among the prime examples of Pete's ability to lead a crowd in group harmony - as he first encourages them to sing, then goes over each part, then, realizing it should be in a higher key, moves his capo before launching into an inspired rendition of "Oh, Mary, Don't You Weep". The spoken opening is a great demonstration of how Pete's singing voice was just an extension of his way of speaking, and the moments here in which he sings a single high note over the harmonizing audience... well, that's something he often did, and it was always an amazing sound, rarely better than it is here.
From 1974, here's my second favorite Seeger track, a performance with his great friend Fred Hellerman on the folk standard "Banks of Marble". The track here, with banjo, guitar and piano, goes into a rolling rhythm, as their voices harmonize as in the old days, and they sing a song which is, sadly, yet to lose its meaning - it is as relevant today as when it was written, about 65 years ago. To quote a well known Seeger song: "when will we ever learn?".
And finally, the recording I consider not only Pete Seeger's finest moment, but one of the two or three greatest single tracks ever recorded. This is one of those perfect records that I could listen to multiple times a day without getting tired of it. It's found on an album recorded at the Weavers' reunion concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1963, but aside from some key instrumental backing from other members of the group (the double bass in particular is essential here), this is all Pete's show, or rather, Pete Seeger with an choir-by-audience numbering in the thousands.
Listen to how simply Pete suggests they sing with him, going into the second chorus, and how, by the end of the song, it's a towering massed vocal singing with him. It helps that Tom Paxton's "Ramblin' Boy" is an incomparable song, but the magic here is what Pete does with it, with his singularly wonderful voice and with the audience.
Thanks, Pete, for the myriad ways that you colored our lives, made it a more beautiful, musically vibrant world, help open our eyes to so many things, and worked to make America and the world a better place.