That Was a Week that Was

2 02 2014

Pete Seeger was among that oddest of music-biz animals: He disliked being a commercial public figure, needed and commanded the public eye in that arena where money most often rules, yet remained an influential social voice while maintaining a high degree of artistic integrity.article-2547233-1B04B67D00000578-539_634x812

It’s no different now than it was in the ’30s, when he got his start. If musicians aren’t willing to make concessions to money and those who command it, they’re consigned to being off stage, unheard, rendered unnecessary and ineffectual. It was the love of music and its healing power that he turned to every time he picked up his extraordinarily long-necked acoustic guitar. Even faced with jail for not naming names in the ’50s, music was his savior.

“That energy came from his belief in the music, an unwavering faith that this was something worth doing,” said fellow folker Tom Paxton. “He believed with all his heart in the power of song.”Pete Seeger standing outside with guitar

He wasn’t an entire unknown in popular music. He topped the charts with the Weavers in the early ’50s, wrote tunes that everyone knew, like Where Have All the Flowers Gone and If I had a Hammer. He also had a hand in history by adapting We Shall Overcome into a modern anthem, a song he didn’t write but improved upon and immortalized by being the right musician at the right time for the right cause.

He disliked the frivolous and was an effective messenger despite society’s penchant for selling frivolity as a lifestyle.

He was naturally optimistic. He would never have written or sung a classic like Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ People Ain’t No Good.

Among the thoughtful and compelling obits posted this week are those that put him in context with his times, the currents of popular music, and the vagaries of politics. Especially worth reading are ones from The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, which was magnanimous enough to not let its Editorial Board mess with.

Hats off to a courageous man who made mistakes, loved life, loved music, improved the lives of others without completely rolling over to the pernicious influences of history and money. Had he not had needed to become famous in order to do what he was born to do, he would have chosen that path. But it’s hardly possible in this time and in the culture. Fame hangs uneasily on anyone’s shoulders. It’s often unwelcome. Its rewards can actually be traps that cater to the ego and power. Take a look at Justin Bieber; fame is gasoline on his fire.rolling_stones_01

Keith Richards, another who believes in the power of song and who also, in a different yet still vital way, was a civil rights progressive in ’60s America, said, “OK, if you need me to be famous, I’ll be as famous as you like.” He too would rather have been anonymous. But Seeger and others gave their lives to song first, then dealt with everything that came with it second.

Culture and its patterns have changed dramatically since Pete Seeger was threatened with jail in the ’50s. Civil rights have improved, though there’s still a way to go. There’s more money than ever in show business, though less than there was in the music business. Live performance has replaced the money that recordings once brought in. It’s run more like a business than ever. The eccentricity of a live show has nearly surrendered itself to playing by the rules. No longer do the Rolling Stones come onstage only when they’re good and ready, like at 2 am, which they frequently did in their 1969 tour of America. 

Liver than you’ll ever be … if you could only stay awake long enough.

That all changed in ’89; the band went on promptly at the billed time and left the audience with enough time to get home, take it all in, and still get a decent night’s sleep. The romantic view of ’69: Wow, what a great thing to be so out of sync with the rest of the world. The actual view: Sinatra wouldn’t do that. Coltrane might. The Stones did. The Dead would occasionally keep an audience up until sunup. They were probably playing the whole night. The Stones lounged, until they were ready to play. Getting your head together to be in the Stones evidently took a lot of time.

Triumphant, yet on time. It’s good for live music. If only we could say the same for the forces that control climate change.bg010314dapr20140103054610

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