Thursday, January 22, 2009

Pete Seeger, a true American

Seeing Pete Seeger singing at the Lincoln Memorial the other day reminded me of my own history with the man.

Reading today of a concerted effort to get Pete Seeger nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize made it more urgent to record this story of my own history with the man.

The easy part of the story – and the one that usually gets people’s attention is when I say, “Pete Seeger taught me to play the banjo.” After some oohs and ahs, I have to fess up and explain that in 1970-something after purchasing a used 5-string banjo, I purchased a copy of “How to play the 5-string banjo” by the man himself. I read the book, learned a few chords and some various techniques (most of which I incorporated into my guitar playing style), but never really did learn to play the banjo all that well. Well enough to fake a few songs and entertain the family, but never more than 3-4 chords.

But the purchase of the book, and my newly acquired affection toward Mr. Seeger prompted my father to tell me an interesting story; one I will share with you here.

Dad was a special agent for the FBI from the late 40s into the early 70s when he retired. So he was at the end of his career or in early retirement when he told the story.

As I remember, Dad began by telling me how much he admired Mr. Seeger noting that he was a “true American.” What I did not realize at the time was that for most of Pete’s professional life he was viewed as a Communist and very “un-American.”

It seems that some time during the 1950s Dad was apparently assigned the duty to “watch” Mr. Seeger. In his description, he told me the location where this took place and even noted the exact address where Mr. Seeger lived at the time. The surveillance work was really nothing more than what all FBI agents did or do; they watch and document what people do. It is usually all done somewhat surreptitiously, but as Pete has publicly confirmed for many years, he knew he was “being followed.” So this was not a big revelation.

The intriguing part of the story was my father’s strenuous and passionate assertion that Mr. Seeger had been wrongly miscast as anti-American.

It was the early 70s and I was at the peak of my own subversive period. It was the time of Nixon and Watergate and Viet Nam. I was a bit of a long-hair-hippy-freak at the time, but very mellow on the political spectrum. When I pressed Dad for more details about the surveillance he was mute. He simply kept repeating that the frequent public assertions of Mr. Seeger’s lack of patriotism were, in his mind, clearly wrong. He said this all with a knowing look on his face, and I believed him.

Perhaps what is most interesting about the story was not that it happened at all, but the fact that when I brought the story back up many years later my father denied the whole thing. No, he had never followed Seeger, and no, he had never said anything about Seeger’s patriotism.

This was extremely surprising and completely unconvincing.

As is common with many ex-agents and others from the quiet side of law enforcement – and I know a bunch of these folks – they frequently only talk about their work in cryptic and minimalistic ways. The limited revelations of details always come within coded terms that intrigue me. I usually am forced to do some homework to figure out the true meaning of the message. But Dad’s vintage message about Pete Seeger’s patriotism was very clear and unambiguous. He liked the guy.

His later assertions that it was not true really confused me. But I think I now understand.

I think it was part of that “old man’s disease” of becoming more conservative as you get older. Dad had been a Kennedy Democrat and adored Bobby Kennedy in the 60s. But by the 1980s he was a Reagan devotee and thought Lee Iacocca was God. He was proud to vote Republican and had autographed photos of George H.W. Bush hanging in the house. Ultimately, Dad never said he disliked Mr. Seeger, but would he would never re-assert the comments about his being “true American.”

In the 70s I had become a member of the Seeger “fan club” and would often play a few of his better known songs at folk festivals and social gatherings. Although I have never seen him perform live, I never miss an opportunity to watch him on TV. So, as Mr. Seeger began to perform at the Inaugural Concert in Washington, accompanied by his grandson and Bruce Springsteen, my eyes filled with tears. Like so many Americans who never thought they would live to see the day when a Black man was sworn in as the leader of the greatest country in the world, I am sure Mr. Seeger felt a strong sense of pride and vindication.

The choice to end the concert with the voice of Pete Seeger and words of Woody Guthrie renews my spirit and stirs my soul. This is truly a land made for you and me.

If you missed it, here is is on YouTube:


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