Keep on singing along to Pete Seeger

By - Monday 3rd February, 2014

Sean Creighton reflects on the life of legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger

Seeger singing at a racially integrated Valentine’s Day party, with guest honour Eleanor Roosevelt. Image taken by Joseph Horne and used under a Creative Commons licence.

Pete Seeger’s death on January 27th is a great loss. I call him Pete because he has been part of my musical soundscape since childhood back in the 1950s. He was one of the leading folk singers and developers of the genre and I have used aspects of his life in work I have done on the role of song in political and social action and on the US civil rights movement. The obituaries and appreciations which cane be seen on the internet, especially those in the Guardian, do not require me to try to summarise his life.

Seeger’s repertoire of songs, including the many he wrote, was extensive. Croydon’s Male Voice Choir includes one in its own repertoire – ‘The Blue Tail Fly’. Its website explains why they sing this song despite its apparent association with blackface minstrelry. “Seeger and others are also inclined to the subversive interpretations of the song”, namely that while “on the surface, [it is] a black slave’s lament over his master’s death”, it “can also be read more subversively, as a slave rejoicing over the master’s death.”

It is to be hoped that Croydon progressives and folk enthusiasts will put on a series of events to celebrate the rich life of Pete Seeger and his legacy. Perhaps these could include showing the film Peter Seeger: The Power of Song by Jim Brown Productions, and examining aspects of folk music in Croydon.

Seeger held his 94th birthday party last May and was joined by his half-sister Peggy, with whom he sang her tribute to him, ‘It’s Pete’. In late 1959 Seeger toured England. Peggy was already in a musical and romantic partnership with the singer and political activist Ewan MacColl. He was married to a dancer, Jean Newlove. Their daughter Kirsty was born at Mayday Hospital on 10th October 1959.

Peggy and Ewan’s repertoire included the Karl Dallas song ‘Derek Bentley’, about the 18 year old hanged for his involvement in the involvement in the incident in which his friend shot a policeman in Croydon. The two singers performed at the Croydon Folk Club when it used to be the Fairfield Halls, now based at Ruskin House. Peter Sarsted still lives in the borough. Could Steve Roud, the former Croydon Local Studies Librarian, who has been creating the Roud Folk Song Index database of nearly 200,000 references to nearly 25,000 songs, be invited to speak? The database is on a website maintained by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). Because the EFDSS ran the My Croydon My Song project in Croydon primary schools, perhaps activities could be involve them as well.

He has been part of my musical soundscape since childhood back in the 1950s

Pete Seeger’s connection with MacColl was more than just through Peggy. Because of his left-wing politics and his long defiance of the House Un-American Activities Committee, he was not allowed to visit again until late 1961. He found he had a large following. Four thousand saw him at the Albert Hall in a concert organised by the Pete Seeger Committee in November. Paul Robeson was president of the committee, MacColl was chairman, and sponsors included Benjamin Britten, Doris Lessing and Sean O’Casey. His biographer says that this trip revitalised Seeger. When he returned to the states he helped initiate the magazine of topical song, Broadside, which featured the songs of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and others.

His reception in Britain in 1961 was partly a recognition of his involvement with the progressive left folk group the Weavers. They had had hits here in the 1950s, their version of ‘Goodnight Irene’ was toned down from Leadbelly’s version, which had contained a verse about taking morphine, changing the chorus from “I’ll get you in my dreams” to “I’ll see you in my dreams”. Then came ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’ and ‘So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You’, ‘Lonesome Traveller’ and ‘The Midnight Special’. Seeger also had a strong influence on John Hasted, a key person in the British folk revival.

In the summer of 1957 Seeger wrote ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’, inspired by some lines from Mikhail Sholokhov’s novel And Quiet Flows the Don. In 1958 he and former Weaver, Lee Hayes, wrote ‘The Hammer Song’. This was a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary using a different tune. Seeger included ‘I Have A Hammer’ in his 3rd July 1978 concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

Another song connected with Seeger has been used in Britain by the labour movement and in political campaigns – ‘We Shall Overcome’. The song, which started as an Afro-American hymn ‘I Shall Overcome’, became a folk version, then a union song called ‘We Shall Overcome’ by black tobacco workers. Seeger and others put new words and a new arrangement to it. Seeger wrote: “I confess that for me the most important word in this song is “We,” and when I sing it, I think of the whole human race which must stick together if we are going to solve the problems of war and peace, of poverty ignorance, fear and health and population. When I feel low and pessimistic about the human species, I occasionally find myself humming it at work.”

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Anne Giles

    I used to play and sing at the Croydon Folk Club. Did so for years. Am a great folk music fan and loved Pete Seeger. Disagree with the politics, though.