Cary McMullen: So long, Pete, it’s been good to know ya

In the new film Inside Llewyn Davis, the title character is a misanthropic folk singer trying none too successfully to make a living in Greenwich Village in 1961. In desperation, he tries out for a Chicago record company owner, who promptly dashes his hopes. Davis bitterly mentions a promising young folk singer, and the owner lights up.

He says, “He’s a really good kid. He connects with people.”

With the death on Monday of Pete Seeger, we have lost an artist who not only connected with people wherever he went in the world, he made people connect with one another. He believed in the universality of man, especially of the common man, and saw no reason why they should hate one another. That democratic impulse made him, contrary to some who may gripe about his communist sympathies, a truly great American.

Seeger wasn’t so much a communist as he was a communitarian. He sought out and created community by the force of his music and his perpetually sunny personality. His friend Arlo Guthrie, son of his great friend Woody Guthrie, said when Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few years ago, “Pete always told me, ‘As long as we sing together, they can’t bring us down.’” Although I never attended a Seeger concert, the televised clips and the news reports demonstrated that whenever he played, people sang together. He insisted on it. Connection.

He was, of course, a walking encyclopedia of folk music, in the truest sense of the word – music of the people. He gleaned songs from every corner of the globe and could sing them in their original languages. But his own contributions to the catalogue of American music are enduring classics: “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine.” We are drawn to the idealism and essential honesty of the sentiments in those songs: “It’s the hammer of justice, / It’s the bell of freedom, / It’s a song about love between my brothers and my sisters, / All over this land.”

The current rise of “roots” music, or the genre sometimes referred to as Americana, owes much to the ground laid by Seeger and his fellow musicians in the years before and after World War II. The same desire to connect directly with the experiences of ordinary people without overproduced and synthetic musical tricks lies at the heart of both. You can draw a direct line between Seeger and Guthrie and Mumford & Sons.

His music was inseparable from his populist activism, which may have seemed strident and ideological at times, but it was hardly the kind of partisan posturing we see too often today. It was at bottom based on a healthy skepticism of power and the illusions it fosters. There seems not to have been a phony molecule in his body, and if he had disdain for anyone, it was for those who were phonies.

Seeger was one of those rare individuals who was both humble and larger than life. He lived the same simple, unpretentious life that he would have lived even if he hadn’t been one of the most famous musicians in the world, and that is so rare today as to be an alien concept. He had much to teach us, but perhaps his greatest lesson was one of authenticity and honesty.

And gentleness. That’s a virtue that has long been left in the dust in these mean times of ours. But Seeger’s gentleness was the kind that has resilience and an inner strength and rises again even when it’s been trampled underfoot. As Bruce Springsteen put it, he was “like your grandpa if your grandpa could kick your ass.” It’s the kind of gentleness Jesus referred to when he said that the meek will one day inherit the earth.

When that day comes, and you just know Pete believed it surely will come, I expect he’ll be somewhere near the front of the line, banjo in hand, and he’ll have everyone singing along.

As Guthrie sang, so we sing to you, Pete (all together now): “So long, it’s been good to know ya.”

Guest Author


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