Rant ‘n’ Roll—Pete Seeger: Centennial of an American Hero

Pete Seeger should be celebrating his 100th birthday May 3. We lost him January 27, 2014 at the age of 94. Upon his death, President Barack Obama said, “Over the years, Pete used his voice—and his hammer—to strike blows for workers’ rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation. And he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger.”

Seeger wrote or co-wrote “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Turn Turn Turn,” and “We Shall Overcome.” He was all over the radio in the nineteen-forties. He served in the U.S. Army in the South Pacific as a mechanic before being used to entertain the troops. He wrote How to Play the Five-String Banjo in 1948, a book that helped future generations strum and pluck. As a member of The Weavers, he made Lead Belly’s “Good Night Irene” the #1 song in America for 13 straight weeks in 1950.

He took his banjo with him when he bravely faced Congress during the McCarthy era in 1955, a time when his peers were giving names and ruining careers. He just smiled and told them he was a singer. “I have sung in hobo jungles,” he said, “and I have sung for the Rockefellers.” But he refused to rat out fellow entertainers, refused to invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege, and looked Congress right in the eye to tell them they had no right to question his patriotism. For this, he was indicted for Contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison. The verdict was ultimately reversed, but the damage had been done. He was blacklisted and had to go back to teaching.

It took the folk music boom of the nineteen-sixties on college campuses across the country to bring him back to prominence. He convinced Columbia Records to sign Bob Dylan. He led a half-million people in singing John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” at the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium March in Washington D.C. He raised his voice in song for labor unions and at rallies for striking coal miners. With his beloved longtime wife Toshi, he founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater to bring attention to pollution in our rivers and streams. At the age of 92, he marched in New York City with the Occupy Wall Street movement, thus starting the national conversation of economic inequality.

To understand Pete Seeger, you have to embrace the notion that protest is, indeed, patriotism. His life, his work, his music, and his unalterable regal bearing should be taught to future generations. Enter George Dassinger, a former Aquarian journalist who has gone on to become a big-time publicist for the likes of the Beach Boys, Rick James, Kenny Rogers, the Tubes, the Cure, Motley Crue, Anita Baker, Metallica, ZZ Top, Van Halen, and Aerosmith. He was one of the first staffers at our magazine, hired by The Aquarian founder Jim Rensenbrink. Ask Dassinger about his time, and he says, “I used to argue with Jim all the time.”

You can also call him Professor Dassinger. His hands-on “Media Use in Entertainment & Music” course has been a key component of the Music Studies Program at William Paterson University in Wayne for the last two decades. What better PR campaign for the students to focus on than for the upcoming Seeger Centennial. And for a seasoned pro like Dassinger, getting a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer like Roger McGuinn to wax eloquently to his students was just a phone call away. Knowing Pete Seeger is one of my heroes, he shared with this reporter exactly what McGuinn had to say.

“Pete was an inspiration and a mentor,” said McGuinn. “When I was a student at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, in 1957, Pete taught a class for the group sing-a-long that night. He borrowed the least expensive-looking banjo and made it sound like the best one you could have imagined! His concerts at Orchestra Mall were amazing. He got the audience singing the three-part harmony with counterpoint. One man onstage with a 5-string banjo, a 12-string guitar, and a recorder filled the hall with joy. I decided that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. After The Byrds made `Turn Turn Turn’ a #1 hit, he sent me a letter saying, `Dear Byrds, I really enjoyed your rendition with the chiming 12-string sounding like bells. My only musical query is; why didn’t you repeat the chorus at the end?’ The answer was time. The recording—in its entirety—was 3:30 and AM Radio, at the time, wouldn’t play anything over 2:30. Pete kept in touch via snail-mail over the years. He never got a computer.”

All over the country, as we inch closer to the Centennial, there will be events celebrating Seeger’s ineffable spirit. The Brooklyn Folk Festival already had theirs. May 5 will mark a dance recital and concert at the Bardovon Opera House in Poughkeepsie, NY, with Maria Muldaur, Happy Traum, Tom Chapin, and Tinya Seeger, his daughter.

I was 16-years-old when I heard Pete Seeger sing his war protest song, “Waist Deep in The Big Muddy (But The Big Fool Said to Push On)” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. It had been originally censored by CBS-TV, but the activist Brothers threatened to walk off the set unless they let him sing it. He did, and that right there, was the genesis of my own political upbringing. So thank you, Pete Seeger. Thank you, Roger McGuinn. Thank you, George Dassinger. May the words and melodies of Pete Seeger be forever enshrined in our national consciousness.