The best picture of Pete Seeger is any one like this one: a tall, spare figure - so tall and so spare that his famous 25-fret long-necked banjo looks perfectly proportional in his hands - standing alone center stage in a large concert hall, left arm raised and hand outstretched to the audience to encourage the people to sing along, to join him, and with him to become part of the song. It hardly mattered what the song was - an old English or Appalachian ballad, an African lullaby, a hard-driving rambling tune, a fiery pro-union or anti-war anthem - all Pete Seeger wanted was for people to sing it with him, and more to the overarching point of his life and career, with each other. "I think God is everything," Seeger remarked in an interview a few years back. "Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to someone or something I’m listening to God." For Pete, the voice of the people, or perhaps the voices of people - that was where dwelt the divine, and it made itself manifest in the sounds of people singing.
Seeger's death at age 94 earlier this week has generated a truly impressive tidal wave of accolades, remembrances, appreciations, and commentaries, and this is not in the least surprising because he was a gigantic presence in American cultural life for seventy years. While he was always quick to credit the resurgence of interest in folk music in this country to his friend Woody Guthrie ("We are all Woody's children," he often remarked) and to collectors like the Lomaxes, father and son, Seeger's own achievement is in fact far more significant in many ways. The Lomaxes were academic collectors working for the Library of Congress, almost a guarantee of anonymity except in dusty university libraries. Guthrie enjoyed a degree of popularity as a radio host and concert performer, and his record sales were more than respectable for a rural guy without formal training - who also happened to be a political radical. And of course, Guthrie was struck down by Huntington's disease in his prime, diagnosed and hospitalized at the age of 40 in 1952, unable to perform or write very much for the last fifteen years of his life. That sad fact throws into even sharper relief Alan Lomax's comment that the folk song revival actually began when Guthrie met Seeger at a concert in 1940 - because Guthrie's incapacity left Seeger to carry the movement forward at the precise moment of the coming of age of American mass media with television, long-playing records, and a national audience for music.
That moment also coincided almost exactly with Seeger's fall from public grace due to his Communist Party associations, leading to his subsequent blacklisting during the worst years of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. Seeger's Weavers - largely his own creation - had made itself the country's first legitimate pop folk group, performing a national and international repertoire of songs with consummate professionalism, where previously popular aggregations like The Carter Family had been generally more regional in the music that they knew and played. But after Red Channels outed Seeger and fellow Weaver Lee Hays as CPUSA members (probably past tense by then, but at that point in history it didn't matter), the Weavers were dumped by Decca Records and had virtually all of their bookings and radio airplay cancelled.
It was this phase of Seeger's career especially that prompted the few but predictable discordant notes sounded in the press following his death. Some of that commentary was pointed and, to a degree at least, accurate: it took Seeger more than 30 years openly to repudiate the horrors of Stalinism that he had once endorsed, for example. But some of it was also of the "I-hope-the-old-Commie-is-burning-in-hell" stripe - mean-spirited, focused on particular aspects of Seeger's work and not the whole of it, and even in some cases trashing not only the man but the entire folk song revival - because the writers hated Seeger, they had to go after his life's edifice as well. A particularly egregious example is from David P. Goldman, who had grown up in a politically leftist family but had gravitated through his life to the other side of the political spectrum: "I was not just a Pete Seeger fan, but a to-the-hammer-born,
born-and-bred cradle fan of Pete Seeger. With those credentials, permit
me to take note of his passing with the observation that he was a fraud,
a phony, a poseur, an imposter. The notion of folk music he espoused
was a put-on from beginning to end." Interestingly, Goldman's complaint is not simply the radical bent of much of Seeger's political music: it is the music itself he abhors as "pap," in addition to asserting that there is no "real American folk music" except the blues. The rest of what we think of as our folk heritage he dismisses as half an artificial construct of Pete's commie pals and the rest as the result of the unreconstructed ignorance of backwater rural rubes.
Well, each to his own - though you cannot help being reminded of the old parable of the three blind men trying to describe an elephant. My own observations on Seeger's politics can be found in the fourth paragraph of a piece I wrote eight years ago HERE, thank you. You don't start a worker's revolution with a banjo, and Seeger never intended to do so. In fact, he observed later in life that "if by some freak of history communism had caught up with this country, I
would have been one of the first people thrown in jail." His collectivism, as I noted, was grounded in a very different set of values. And more to the point of this site - Seeger's repertoire was not some faked-up amalgam of silly old songs; it was one of the first very real iterations of world music, of the sense that one of the most important things shared by all people everywhere was music. As an expression of that belief, Seeger spent his entire career finding, learning, and performing songs from scores of countries around the world, with the traditional songs of England and Ireland and Scotland and American cowboys and riverboatmen and slaves occupying a central but not exclusive position in his concerts. Songs of India and Israel, South Africa and Norway, Australia and South America became familiar to Anglophone Americans through Seeger's recordings and performances.
Undoubtedly, the best-known of these Seeger discoveries is "Mbube"/"Wimoweh", but a close second is probably "Guantanamera" from Cuba, which as with many folk songs has a delightfully tangled history. The melody probably originated as a peon's song in the Cuban province of Oriente in the late 19th century, but possibly much earlier. Most Cuban scholars identify the two-word refrain as a salute to both the well-born women of the province ("las Guantanameras") and the simple peasant girls (whose songs had been termed "las guajiras"), making the tune a sort of all-purpose courting number. However, the simple and repetitive chorus and the strict and regular meter of the lines of the verses made the original song a kind of Cuban "Hey LiLee LiLee," with street musicians and bar patrons and partygoers extemporizing verses as they went along, turning the news of the day and the sorrows of life and some randy jokes into a song that changed every time it was sung. One of the exponents of this format for "Guantanamera" - and quite controversially, one of the copyright holders - was the great Cuban bandleader Joseíto Fernández (1908-1979), who began performing the number on Havana radio around 1930. Here is Fernández from a television show some twenty years later:
My Spanish is limited but enough to recognize some of what Fernández is saying, and it is definitely not the lyric with which we are familiar today. That lyric is derived from the great Cuban poet and revolutionary and national hero José Martí, who was killed in battle at the age of 42 in 1895 while trying to free his native land from Spanish colonial domination. Martí was an essayist, philosopher, and firebrand in addition to being a poet, sort of what you would get in American history and culture if you spliced the DNA of Thoreau, Whitman - and John Brown. The idea of taking the words of one of Cuba's most admired and lyrical writers and adding them to a popular and lovely melody is probably attributable to teacher Julian Orbón, who claimed to have done so around 1946. This new "Guantanamera" became an instant sensation in Cuba and was carried throughout Latin America by the fabulous Celia Cruz, the Queen of Latin Music, with a distinctively salsa flavored arrangement. Cruz is interspersing her own lyrics with Martí's in the best tradition of the song, but the blueprint of the modern version is audible here.
Orbón's intent was to take stanzas from five of Martí's short poems and conflate them into a single lyric. This arrangement was picked up by composer Hector Angulo, who studied in New York in the late 1950s and ran across Pete Seeger, who recognized immediately both the beauty of the melody and the poems. Seeger learned it and it became a popular part of Pete's concert repertoire. The gentle and reflective approach to the song, respecting as it does the sense of Martí's stanzas, received its widest exposure at first through Seeger's popular and widely-selling 1963 Carnegie Hall Concert LP:
It was this version that inspired The Sandpipers, a west coast vocal group being groomed by no one less than Herb Alpert, to record and release the number in 1966:
The Sandpipers' version won a gold record, was nominated for a Grammy, and went as high as #7 on the U.S. singles charts.
"Guantanamera" has continued since then to be a very popular staple of the world music song bag, with literally hundreds of cover versions currently available. Two of the best, I think, reflect the built-in flexibility of the number to differing interpretations - first, a distinctively Puerto Rican take by José Feliciano:
and a delightful mariachi version by Mariachi Imperiale de México:
I love the full-on treatment here - guitars, violins, coronets, guitarrón, percussion, the works.
But as T.S. Eliot wrote - in my end is my beginning, and I want to conclude with another version from Pete Seeger, with whom this post started long ago. This is a performance of "Guantanamera" by Seeger with his grandson Tao Rodriquez from 1993 at Wolf Trap in Virginia. The keyboardist is Arlo Guthrie, Woody's son and Seeger's frequent performing partner, and the back-up singers include Woody's daughter Cathy amd granddaughters Annie and Sara Lee:
Pete Seeger was 74 when this was recorded, at an age when lots of folks pack it in and move to the Sun Belt. Not Seeger. Can we watch him in this video and listen to him and not hear and sense the love of life and music and people that animated his public work for more than 70 years? Can we not see him for what he was, a national American treasure and a gifted artist well worthy of the hundreds of awards he earned? And were we not singularly blessed as a nation to have had him with us for another twenty years following?