Mother Jones Festival remembers Pete Seeger (1919 – 2014)
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Pete Seeger, John Nyhan and Mick Treacy will sing some of the songs associated with this legendary folk singer at the Maldron Hotel on Friday 2nd August at 9.30pm.
Pete Seeger remained committed throughout his long life to basic principles such as defence of trade unions, the rights of workers, social justice, peace and protection of the environment. An activist at heart, a songwriter, he wrote hundreds of songs, saved many “lost’ songs and popularised dozens of others.
“Songs won’t save the planet, but neither will books or speeches. But songs are sneaky things, they slip past borders, they proliferate in prisons”.
His main influences were Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax and Aunt Molly Jackson. Pete listened in awe as Leadbelly talked to his guitar, he sang for his next meal with Guthrie and he marvelled as Aunt Molly veteran of Harlan County mine wars sang out “I am a Union Woman”.
He studied sociology in Harvard, yet he wanted to be a journalist. The Harvard Class of 1940, including John F Kennedy, graduated without Pete who had dropped out. Abandoning his efforts to become an artist he discovered the songs and music of the people which allowed the working class to express themselves.
He was an integral part of the initial fusion and synergy of folk music with social and union activism, IWW songs, communist and leftist politics in the post-depression years. His first public appearance as a singer in 1940 ended with Pete forgetting how to play his 5 string banjo and then forgetting the words. Yet his dedication, belief and resilience saw him found the Almanac Singers and play Madison Square Garden in May 1941 before thousands of striking workers from the Transport Workers’ Union, led by Kilgarvan born Mike Quill.
The Almanac Singers “Talking Union” album featuring Pete and Woody became a musical bible for thousands of union activists and ensured the survival of songs such as Solidarity Forever (Ralph Chaplin), Which Side Are You On (Florence Reece) and We Shall Not Be Moved. The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and the entry of the Americans into World War 2 ensured the demise of the Almanacs.
Seeger was drafted into the Army and served the war out in Saipan. Tragically, his baby son Peter, with his wife Toshi died at 4 months while he was in Saipan. After the war, he helped to organise People’s Songs, a huge collective of musicians and union activists which shared songs and promoted left-wing causes. Later he established Sing Out.
In 1949, Pete along with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman established The Weavers. They achieved popular success with hits such as Goodnight Irene (written by Pete’s old friend Lead belly), Wimoweh and Tena, Tzena, Tzena.
The advent of the McCarthy witch hunts ensured Pete became a target for the FBI and informers. Labelled a “Commie” and “Stalin’s Songbird”, the notorious and feared blacklist brought about the demise of the popular Weavers, with work drying up. Pete considered himself a communist with a small “c”, he supported many communist causes, was a member of the Communist Party and defended them in the 40s and 50s but claimed to be a musician first rather than a politician.
Through the grinding 1950s, Seeger became a lightning rod for the FBI and was relentlessly investigated for sedition by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. 1961 saw him cited for contempt of Congress and sentenced to ten one year periods in jail to run concurrently. Finally in May 1962, a Court of Appeal dismissed the charges.
His plight aroused a worldwide campaign. The Pete Seeger Committee in England had Paul Robeson as president, Ewan MacColl as secretary and Benjamin Britten, Doris Lessing and Sean O’Casey as sponsors. 4000 people packed the Royal Albert Hall in his support in 1961. A young Bob Dylan accused the authorities of framing him and described Seeger as a “saint.” Tommy Makem publicly supported Pete.
The 1960s saw the folk/rock boom take off and groups such as Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio had huge hits with If I Had a Hammer and Where Have All The Flowers Gone. Turn Turn Turn and his adaption of the Cuban poem Guantanamera is embedded in the public consciousness. Pete’s version of We Shall Overcome an old gospel hymn adapted by striking tobacco workers in the 40s and published in People’s Songs became the anthem of the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War movements. He marched at Selma with Dr Martin Luther King and encouraged Bernice Johnson and the Freedom Singers, who brought the spiritual and slave songs of the South to the Civil Rights movement.
Back in 1949, Pete and his wife Toshi had purchased 17 acres of land on a hilly site overlooking the River Hudson, near Beacon north of New York. There they built a “log cabin” and raised three children (Danny, Mika and Tinya) amidst the woods. Toshi was an activist, “the brains of the family” who shunned the limelight, she organised Pete and organised concerts, festivals and their itineraries (Newport Folk Festival, the Clearwater festival).
A non-drinker and non-smoker, Seeger lived a relatively independent ascetic lifestyle, answering mail from all over the world, writing songs, supporting union and social causes and simply chopping wood.
In the 60s he noticed how the nearby environment was deteriorating and how the Hudson River was increasingly contaminated with toxic materials. Vowing to try to rectify this environmental degradation floating past his remote home, he led a project to build a sloop to travel the river to educate people and society about cleaning up the once beautiful Hudson. In 1969, Clearwater was finally launched and still plies the waterways.
Seeger played his banjo and sang at hundreds of counter culture events through the 70s and 80s and influenced generations of singers and activists, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins and dozens of others acknowledged his pioneering influence, Pete in turn acknowledged Huddie, Aunt Molly and Woody. His 90th Birthday concert at Madison Square Garden was a huge event as the folk music world paid homage.
A highlight for Pete came when Barack Obama asked him to perform at his presidential inauguration concert in 2009. Accompanied by Tao Rodriguez, his grandson and Springsteen, they sang This Land is Your Land, written by Woody Guthrie.
Pete passed away on 27th January 2014. Toshi Seeger died on 9th July 2013.
John Nyhan was born in Cork City, he now lives in North Cork. He was heavily influenced by the Folk music revival of the 60s and 70s and has been playing and promoting music for over 40 years. In the 1970s he was a founding member of the Shandon Folk Club in Eason’s Hill, within earshot of the Shandon Bells.
John worked as a peace campaigner in Northern Ireland in the 70s as a member of Voluntary Services International. He is well known for his involvement in the Bluegrass and Folks concerts which take place at the Village Arts Centre in Kilworth in North Cork.
Along with Mick Treacy he has played at the Mother Jones festivals and his song themes have included the songs of Joe Hill, songs of the mining communities and the songs of the Spanish Civil War in 2017. In 2018 John and Mick honoured Ewan MacColl in an unforgettable performance.
Mick Treacy was a familiar figure in the folk clubs across English which resulted from the Folk revival. He was a member of the famous “Munstermen” folk group which played and sang on the UK folk circuits. The Munstermen had their own club known as the “Holy Ground” in the Cambridge Inn. Mick’s knowledge of folk ballads is encyclopaedic and his powerful performances along with his old friend John Nyhan are always memorable at the festival.
The songs of Pete Seeger will be sung at the Maldron Hotel in Shandon at 9.30 pm on Friday night 2nd August at the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival 2019.
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