Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A golden thread of music - remembering Pete Seeger

When I think about it for a minute, Pete Seeger is perhaps as important a part of my musical education as anyone else. Mostly this is because of the songs my Dad used to sing - "Blue Tailed Fly", "Home on the Range", "If I had a Hammer" and other songs so familiar to us all. I didn't know these songs were sung by Pete Seeger, or indeed that he'd written a few of them himself.

What mattered about these songs wasn't the message, although I guess that mattered to Pete Seeger, but the simplicity and accessibility of the music. These were songs designed for what we once called "community singing" rather than for standing gawping at the performer's brilliance or virtuosity. For sure, you could sit and watch someone sing "Where have all the Flowers Gone" but just as equally you can sit with some friends, perhaps with a drink, and sing that same song, probably with lousy harmonies and a collection of bum notes. And it doesn't matter as the simple value of the music stays the same.

Seeger's magic, the way he engaged with the audience, was to write songs we think are traditional, songs we can all sing. And the songs were always anthemic with choruses that reverberated and repeated in our minds:

"When will they ever learn,
When will they ever learn."


"For defence you need common sense
Bring them home, bring them home/
hey don't have the right armaments
Bring them home, bring them home." 

As a Conservative, I understand the connection Seeger made to the traditions of American music - for all that he was a life-long socialist activist. Not just saving and singing the old songs (some of them straight from the English folk book) but using the style and metre of that music to create new songs, new music.

This is the point of folk music. Not some pretentious heart-on-sleeve activism, not musical wonderment, not complicated trills and thrill. Just good tunes played and sung by good people. And presented in a way that, when we're driving in our car, ironing, sitting on the porch or round a table with friends, we too can sing those songs, can take that golden thread back into our roots through music our ancestors would have recognised as their music too.


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