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Remembering Pete Seeger and His Days in California

| January 29, 2014
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Legendary folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger has been inspiring Californians since his earliest days as a traveling banjo player.

Seeger died Monday in a New York hospital at the age of 94.

Pete Seeger came to California in 1940 to play a benefit concert for migrant farmworkers. And it was then he met singer, songwriter and activist Woody Guthrie. The two became traveling and singing companions, campaigning for farmworker justice two decades before the movement rose to national prominence, says United Farm Workers spokesman Marc Grossman.

‘I think he believed that music could cut through all of those things that make us afraid of one another.’— Holly Near
on folksinger Pete Seeger

Grossman was the personal aide and press secretary to Cesar Chavez for more than two decades. He says Chavez met Guthrie at about the same time Seeger did.

“Cesar was just a kid then, maybe 13 or 14 years old,” Grossman says, “when Guthrie, this legendary folksinger and songwriter, would visit and sing songs and support strikes in the farm labor camps in the lower Central Valley, where Cesar and his family sometimes lived when they were migrant farmworkers during the Depression.”

In the 1960s, Seeger and Guthrie, along with artists like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary, helped elevate the United Farm Workers movement to national consciousness.

Pete Seeger at a 2009 performance in New York City. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Pete Seeger at a 2009 performance in New York City. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Seeger would plug the union’s grape boycotts wherever he could, Grossman says, and would sometimes attend UFW events in the Midwest and East Coast.

“He’d sing ‘Nosotros Venceremos,’ the Spanish version of ‘We Shall Overcome,’ that Cesar and the UFW adopted in the 1960s,” Grossman says. “We felt blessed that among the many righteous causes that Pete Seeger championed over the decades was La Causa, the farmworkers’ cause.”

We Shall Overcome” is one of Seeger’s most famous tunes, adapted from an old gospel song. Here is the story of how the song became a protest anthem, as related by The New York Times:

Like many of Mr. Seeger’s songs, “We Shall Overcome” had convoluted traditional roots. It was based on old gospel songs, primarily “I’ll Overcome,” a hymn that striking tobacco workers had sung on a picket line in South Carolina. A slower version, “We Will Overcome,” was collected from one of the workers, Lucille Simmons, by Zilphia Horton, the musical director of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., which trained union organizers.

Ms. Horton taught it to Mr. Seeger, and her version of “We Will Overcome” was published in the People’s Songs newsletter. Mr. Seeger changed “We will” to “We shall” and added verses (“We’ll walk hand in hand”). He taught it to the singers Frank Hamilton, who would join the Weavers in 1962, and Guy Carawan, who became musical director at Highlander in the ‘50s. Mr. Carawan taught the song to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at its founding convention.

The song was copyrighted by Mr. Seeger, Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Carawan and Ms. Horton. “At that time we didn’t know Lucille Simmons’s name,” Mr. Seeger wrote in his 1993 autobiography, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” All of the song’s royalties go to the “We Shall Overcome” Fund, administered by what is now the Highlander Research and Education Center, which provides grants to African-Americans organizing in the South.

Seeger inspired generations of folk musicians and activists, with his commitment to peace, community, and the labor movement. And it was at a concert in San Francisco where 10-year-old aspiring folk singer Holly Near first heard Seeger, along with Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman, in the pioneering folk group The Weavers. Near says folk music was popular in her childhood home. Her father built a specially sized mailbox to receive LPs, and her mother would go through catalogs and order albums by Odetta, Paul Robeson and The Weavers.

“My siblings and I would all sing all the parts. We knew the words to every single song and we would dance around and sing,” Near says, then breaks into the opening line from The Weavers’ “Wasn’t That a Time“: “Our fathers bled at Valley Forge. … ”

“Now I’m sure as an 8-year-old I had no idea what that meant,” she says, laughing, “but it was so exciting, those voices.”

Near says she had no idea back then that she would sing with Seeger on and off through much of her life. She says Seeger often invited younger musicians like her to join him, and there’s likely hardly a folk musician in California who hasn’t shared the stage with him at some point.

He was eager to join in the antiwar and civil rights causes of the 1960s, she says, and would sing for causes across political boundaries, like a fundraiser he did for children in Lebanon at a time when the Arab community couldn’t find artists who would support their work.

“He felt that everyone should be given a chance to respond to a song,” Near says. “Even on his banjo it says, ‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.’ I think he believed that music could cut through all of those things that make us afraid of one another.”

During the McCarthy era, Seeger and other members of the Weavers were accused of belonging to the Communist Party — true in Seeger’s case, though he had quit by the time the charge was made — and they would sometimes arrive for concerts to find they were barred from playing. One such episode occurred in Ohio, when a 1951 Weavers appearance at the state fair was canceled. Near says that decades later, when she was touring with Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert and Arlo Guthrie, “the governor of Ohio — must have been 50 years later — invited Pete and Ronnie to come forward, and he did a public apology to them for Ohio’s historic error. It was very, very beautiful to see.”

Near says now is a time to play Pete Seeger’s music, sing, dance and feel the joy of having shared the planet with him for so many years.

“It’s been an honor and a pleasure to be with such an extraordinary musician and thinker and lover of the world,” she says, and then starts laughing. “I was laughing, thinking that there’s such an unusual footprint that he’s left that archaeologists are going to see it and wonder, ‘What creature is this? And we’re his descendants.’ ”

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