Music News & Reviews

Appreciation: Peter Seeger's musical influence is without measure

Folk singer Pete Seeger put his music to work in  drawing  attention to social and  economic causes.
Folk singer Pete Seeger put his music to work in drawing attention to social and economic causes. AP

The polite but tired view of folk music is one of intimacy, a style confined to the comfort of coffeehouses and the company of friends. Pete Seeger lit a fuse to that notion.

His coffeehouse was a global stage, and his friends were successive generations of artists and activists who saw folk not only as a means of personal expression but as a pen with which to address an often-intolerant nation.

In a career that spanned seven decades, Seeger upheld folk as a social art form. His music was designed to serve and be shared.

To understand the importance of Seeger, who died Monday at age 94, one needs to revisit the dark corridors of American history where his music took shape. McCarthyism. Segregation. War. All manner of labor, social and environmental unrest.

He became a commercial musical force with the Weavers by making a hit out of Leadbelly's Goodnight, Irene. But it was what Seeger said in a string of work and protest songs that stirred the pot of social consciousness. It made him famous. Then it got him blacklisted.

But Seeger's importance didn't begin there. He was a protégé of folk archivist Alan Lomax, and folk was his key to America, especially rural areas where folk was a part of daily work life. These were roads Seeger never stopped walking. It led him to benefit concerts for migrant workers in the early 1940s and to Occupy Wall Street 70 years later.

What continued to astound, though, was the influence Seeger had on other artists. The popularity of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash probably would have varied considerably without Seeger's support in the 1960s, as would the more electric Americana of The Byrds and the progressive country legions they inspired.

More recently, the politically driven music of Bruce Springsteen, the indie activist records of Ani DiFranco, and the global- and social-minded songs of Bruce Cockburn would have been unimaginable without Seeger.

For me, the recordings that exemplified the quiet but steadfast power of Seeger's tireless folk vision were the concert albums he released with Arlo Guthrie over the years, particularly 1975's Together in Concert. Among that record's almost childlike highlights was Get Up and Go, a humorous reverie on aging from a Seeger who still had four decades of life and work ahead of him.

"In spite of it all, I'm able to grin," Seeger sang with no small amount of whimsy. "And think of the places my get-up has been."