Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Good essay about Pete Seeger, including reviews of new publications

Richard Flacks on Pete Seeger

posted August 7, 2009

Pete Seeger turned 90 on May 3, providing the occasion for a huge Madison Square Garden celebratory concert, featuring a wide array of popular musicians singing his songs and honoring his influence. In the two years prior to this event, Seeger had gotten more mainstream attention than he’d received in his previous 70 years of performing. Bruce Springsteen recorded several CDs called “The Seeger Sessions” and simultaneously went on an international tour featuring material drawn from Seeger’s folksong repertory. There was a documentary film bio, released on public TV and theatrically, called “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.” There’s an ongoing campaign to get him nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

A long adulatory essay on Seeger appeared in The New Yorker and an extended version with the same main title—“The Protest Singer”—is now out as one of three recently published biographies. In addition to the book by Alec Wilkinson, there is a biographical narrative by historian Allan M. Winkler, “To Everything There Is a Season,” and a major updating of David King Dunaway’s “official” biography, “How Can I Keep From Singing,” originally published in 1981.

The attention Pete Seeger is now getting is certainly deserved, given his influence on American music and the nature of his life story. Yet, one feature of that story is that he is one of the least well-known famous persons in America. I use protest music a lot in my teaching about social movements; over the years, I’ve found that fewer than 5 percent of my students at UC Santa Barbara can identify Seeger (and this is probably a higher proportion than one would find in a sample of the wider public). Of course, the attention he’s gotten in recent years has undoubtedly enabled many more to identify him, but he remains paradoxically shadowy, given his importance.

Yet this paradox goes to the heart of what his life has been about.

The rest is at

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