Pete Seeger’s populist refrain: ‘Let them sing something’

Photo by John McCally
Paul Metsa with Pete Seeger

The following passage about Pete Seeger, who died Jan. 27, is excerpted from Minnesota musician Paul Metsa’s 2011 book, “Blue Guitar Highway,” with permission of the publisher, University of Minnesota Press. 

When Nora Guthrie called in May 1996 and invited me to perform at the Tribute to Woody Guthrie at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, I was honored, thrilled, and jazzed like a beatnik on stolen Benzedrine. I spent the summer rereading Bound for Glory, Pastures of Plenty, and Woody Guthrie: A Life, and listening to all the Woody Guthrie stuff I had. In caffeine-soaked mornings and nicotine-laced afternoons listening to Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, I was living in that holy world of vinyl records again. Occasionally I’d see it with my eyes closed—unamplified truths, dust bowl farm blackouts, teenage girls and Cadillacs—a harsh and beautiful world. Blow, wind, blow. …

Arriving at the Cleveland airport on September 26, I met Country Joe McDonald and the British folkie John Wesley Harding, who were also taking part in the Guthrie tribute. …

Two shows were scheduled. The big show on Sunday was at Severance Hall on the Case Western University campus and featured Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco, the Indigo Girls, Dave Pirner, and others. It was hosted by Nora and Harold Leventhal, the manager of Woody, Pete, and Arlo. I would play with seven other performers the night before, at the eight-hundred-seat Odeon Club.

… I made my way to the rehearsal hall, opened the door, and followed my ears to the sound of someone tuning a banjo. There was Pete Seeger. Now Pete Seeger should be the fifth face on Mount Rushmore, as far as I’m concerned. I took a deep breath, quietly took my guitar from the case, and walked to the corner where John Wesley Harding had joined Pete. I put my cassette player on the windowsill beside us and joined Pete and Wes on “Hobo’s Lullaby.” One verse later Wes and I are weaving a couple of harmonies around Pete’s righteous lead. In between verses, Pete adds long and deliberate clawhammer solos, and by the look on his face I can tell he’s enjoying his own playing. After a couple of verses and choruses, while Wes plays mouth harp and I keep the chords going, Pete tells the story of the song and how everybody thought Woody wrote it, when in fact it was written by a guy named Goebel Reeves. That song shows Woody’s affinity for the underdog, knocks the cops, and speaks of the optimism of how things will get better in heaven. These are Woody’s greatest lessons to me, to give a voice and dignity to those who deserve it but have been denied. After finishing the tale, Pete hits the last verse, we join him on the chorus, and with another leisurely stroll on the banjo he takes us out.

Ever the mentor, Pete goes on to tell us about Merle Travis, the history of fingerpicking, the origins of major musical ideas from Africa, and how by slowing down Merle’s “Sixteen Tons,” Tennessee Ernie Ford had himself a hit. I introduce myself and tell Pete that “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” was probably the first folk song I ever learned. He looked at me with those Pacific blue eyes and asks, “Have you ever heard it in German?” and proceeds to enunciate the lyrics in his husky sand-reed voice. …

For our private tour of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I climbed into the first van and was joined by Mr. and Mrs. Leventhal, Jimmy Longhi, Jimmy LaFave, his friend Greg Johnson from Oklahoma City, and Pete and Toshi Seeger. I was in the middle seat next to Pete, and for the next fifteen minutes listened to a great primer on the history of folk music through the eyes of its living leader. He spoke of the work his father, Charles Seeger, had done researching European folk music and how he presented it to America, and of folk songs with “teeth.” He told us how he went to Central America and South America in the 1960s, to the chagrin of the U.S. government, to sing antiwar songs loudly and proudly. He told us that he and Woody first heard the word hootenanny in Seattle in 1938, and how the Daily Worker asked Woody to write an article about folk music, which Guthrie referred to as “ear music.” That article was the beginning of Woody’s book Bound for Glory. Turning into the parking lot at the Hall of Fame, Jimmy Longhi turned to Pete, pointed to the building, and said, “Look at that architecture!” Commenting on I.M. Pei’s design, Pete replied, without skipping a beat, “Well, I can see he can combine a circle and a square,” and then to no one in particular, “I think the 45-degree angle has been completely overdone.”

After the tour, we drop off Toshi and Pete; he steps out, grabs one of the concrete chain holders that guard the entrance, and leapfrogs over it with ease. We headed back to the hotel to have dinner and get ready for the show. …

All of the Saturday night performers and the musicians and actors from the Woody Guthrie play joined Sunday’s ensemble for the encores. As we were about to begin, Pete Seeger came on to a standing ovation with his banjo held high and beaming. He led a sweeter-than-Tupelo-honey version of “Hobo’s Lullaby.” Standing between Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and Nora Guthrie, I felt as if I were about to receive my spiritual diploma, in spite of the fact that I was refused entrance to the music school at the University of Minnesota so many years before. We rallied into “I’ve Got to Know,” with everyone taking a verse, and sent it into the stratosphere. …

I returned to Minneapolis and was back at Nye’s Polonaise Room for my Wednesday night house gig. No big names, no press, no concert stage or lighting, no roadies, just a dimly lit stage in a corner bar, yet that night it felt like Carnegie Hall. I remembered something Pete Seeger told me in the van: “I’d like to remind all the young folksingers to make sure they get the audience to sing. They don’t have to sing every song but let them sing something.”

With that, and the new blood I felt coursing through my veins as a man who if not ordained felt, at least, metaphysically knighted in the grand Guthrie tradition, I banged out the first chord and opening verse to “This Land Is Your Land,” and by the end of the song the entire bar of retirees, ramblers, rounders, discount lovers, businessmen, bookies, a couple of tipsy steelworkers, a dealer and a stripper, a fallen priest, frat boys and sorority girls, the bartender, the swamper, the waitresses, and the other proud, beautiful, and anonymous Americans sang with me in a boisterous, freedom-filled, and collective last-call victory voice that echoed, at least that night, from the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply