When the folk boom of the 1960s brought a new crop of young, politicised singer/songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Buffy Sainte-Marie to the forefront of popular awareness, an influential critic famously referred to them as “Pete’s children”.
The Pete in question was the lanky banjo player, folk singer, civil rights and anti-war activist, Pete Seeger. Throughout the preceding two decades, Seeger had been synonymous with political folk music in the US and was, for a long time, the road buddy of the great Woody Guthrie.
The two met in 1940 at a “Grapes of Wrath” benefit concert for migrant workers – a date which the folklorist Allan Lomax described as the beginning of modern folk music.
While Guthrie’s guitar was emblazoned with the words “this machine kills fascists”, Pete’s banjo bore the legend “this machine surrounds hatred with love and forces it to surrender”.
Both were members of the Communist Party and collaborated in the famous Almanac Singers during the years up to and after the outbreak of the Second World War.
Seeger’s musical career suffered greatly during the post war years when he was identified by the McCarthy witch-hunt and hauled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He was sentenced to a year in jail on ten counts of contempt – although that was later quashed on a technicality.
By the early 1960s, when he was finally able to resume his touring engagements unhindered, he was regarded by many of the young people who flocked to hear him as a modern American hero.
The black civil rights movement and opposition to the war in Vietnam were the burning issues of the day, and Seeger was the singing voice of the movement in the US.
Now the songs he championed alongside the compositions of old friends such as Guthrie and Leadbelly were the new anthems of struggle from the young blades they were calling Pete’s children.
Dylan’s apocalyptic song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” became a standard in the Seeger songbook and he used it to close his triumphant We Shall Overcome comeback concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1963.
Bruce Springsteen’s latest album is a musical tribute to Pete Seeger, also bearing the title We Shall Overcome.
In the current climate of new anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggles, and widespread opposition to George Bush and Tony Blair’s wars, the relevance of Seeger has not been lost on Springsteen. Nor should it be lost on us.
Pete’s own compositions “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy” and “Bring ‘Em Home” were timely broadsides against the US’s war on the people of Vietnam.
It’s great to be reminded by an album like Springsteen’s just how influential popular culture can be in shaping history.
The life of Seeger has been one of fearless commitment to the struggle for liberty and peace.
But Pete is a humanist as well as an activist, and many of Bruce Springsteen’s song choices on this new album reflect this. Pete didn’t only sing for social change.
He also had a vast repertoire of traditional folk songs and songs for children, songs like “Froggy Went A’Courtin' and “The Ballad Of Jesse James”.
Seeger is one of the great entertainers, communicators and justice-fighters. We shall overcome. Indeed we shall.