Happy Birthday, Pete!

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

In a few hours I’m going to the Pete Seeger 90th birthday concert, courtesy Lee and Alice (pbut). In my early teens, some who know me now will be surprised to learn, I was a folky. These days, not so much.

But I am proud to say, I have never once stopped defending Pete Seeger from criticisms aesthetic and political. His instrument is not and never was his voice, nor even his banjo. It was his audience. And he played his audience so brilliantly because he genuinely loved them and trusted them to help make his music, their music.

His politics? About the worst you could say about him is that he was a mush-minded humanist, but dammit, he was our mush-minded humanist. And that would a half-truth at best. It was from him that I first heard the song “I Hate The Capitalist System” by Sarah Ogan, who was active in the Harlan County coal-mining struggles in the ’30s (the strike in which Florence Reece wrote “Which Side Are You On?” the song in the video above). And possibly his best instrumental composition for banjo, save only the incomparable “Goofing Off Suite,” is his arrangement of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s “Three Rules of Discipline and the Eight Rules of Attention.”

Here is a video that brings all these points together. It’s one of his greatest compositions, a hymn to optimism of the will and the continuity of the struggle called “Quite Early Morning.” It was recorded within the last couple of years in Beacon, NY, and Pete’s voice, as he’s been telling us for years, is shot. It’s freezing cold in the venue where they are taping this. Besides whoever’s behind the camera, there are two people in front of him, bundled up on metal folding chairs, and damned if he doesn’t get them to chime in on the chorus.

Many happy returns, Pete…

Crossposted from Fire on the Mountain.


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    • dennis on May 3, 2009 at 19:28

    video or two…

  1. to say thank you for this celebration!

    You might also be interested in the tribute Al Giordano wrote today.

    Now…for my video. More of a conversation than a tune.

    One of my favorite things on the internet is the This Brave Nation collaboration between Brave New Films and The Nation Magazine. Here’s a link to the conversation between Pete Seeger and Majora Carter.

  2. nice little snippet from The Field:

    I had a wonderful time strumming and harmonizing with Pete and his posse. At one point when the folk song army was conducting a rather croonish version of “Amazing Grace,” Pete got up from his chair, interrupted, and told the story of how the words were written: how the captain of a slave ship had a moment of clarity and turned the ship around back to Africa. He then led the assembled to raise their voices to sustain each word and note, converting it back from a mere folk song into a gospel spiritual again. The guy’s still got it.

    • on May 4, 2009 at 06:44

    Thanks for posting this wonderful video of Pete! But to set the record straight: Sarah Ogan did NOT write “Which Side Are You On?”  It was written by Florence Reece of Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1931 after gun thugs ran her coal miner husband, Sam Reece, away from home. You can watch Florence singing her anthem – which is sung around the world! – in the Academy Award-winning documentary “Harlan County, U.S.A.”

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