Today, 3 May 2013, Pete Seeger is 94. Happy Birthday, Pete! I hope family and friends gather round and you all have a great singaround.
In my own personal history, it must be nearly 50 years since I first heard Pete live in concert at what was then the Flora Robson Theatre on Tyneside in 1963. At the time, I was a member of a folk-cum-skiffle group called ‘The Clevelanders’ in Darlington. Ron Boyd, the banjo player, and I, were driven up by David ‘Jack’ Handley, our lead singer. I was a bit surprised that the concert was not totally sold out, though I suppose the new wave folk revival of the early 1960s was still only just gathering steam. The folk club we had started in Darlington was only a few weeks old.
Afterwards I got hold of the LP (that’s vinyl-speak for CD or MP3 download for those too young to understand), called ‘We Shall Overcome’, based on the Carnegie Hall Concert Pete made on that world tour. It is still inspiring to listen to all these decades later. Pete was not very long after surviving gruelling treatment from the ‘House UnAmerican Activities Committee’. These were the days immediately after McCarthyism (Pete having been a victim), accompanied by a growing Civil Rights Movement and, lurking in the background, the beginnings of involvement of US troops in Vietnam. In the UK, we watched all this, while ourselves campaigning against the H-Bomb and Apartheid in South Africa.
The world has changed much since then, but hardly for the better, despite partially winning some of those old battles. The underlying problem of capitalism remains brutally intact and just as aggressive in its intent and its contempt for humanity, culture and the natural world. Meanwhile movements to oppose it remain fragmented, ephemeral and largely ineffectual. We still need the Pete Seegers to inspire us towards something better and then, ‘We Shall Overcome’! Must get on and practice – learn new songs, write new songs, get people singing again.