I’ve never been a fan of how Pete Seeger renders American folk songs. His voice and musical arrangement never connected with me much at all. The voice is a bit too soaring and the arrangement a bit too, I don’t know – that thing you can’t quite name, but is how you feel and connect with musical pieces. And all of that completely misses the point once you stop thinking about personal taste, playing a song on your devices, and start thinking and remembering. Seeger died at 94. That’s a good, old age for a guy who played even older songs for so many years.
What seems more to the point, especially now at his passing, is how Seeger represented a blend of cultural politics and social commentary. I think in many ways we’ve come to understand the two as very different. Cultural politics has its passion and passionate critics. We’ve talked a lot lately about appropriation courtesy of Miley Cyrus or maybe now even Macklemore post-Grammy, we’ve talked for decades about the importance of preserving traditions, we really ought to always talk about unique kinds of heritage born of long struggle, immigrant experience, multi-generational poverty, cultural isolation, and so on. Then there is social commentary, or what we just call “politics.” To put it simply, that has to do with contesting governments, particular forms of injustice, rallying the conscience of groups and nations, advocating justice, and registering outrage in demanding something different.
Seeger was politically hard to critique, for those of us with a sharp turn to the left. He was anti-fascist, a marcher for civil rights, critic of imperial war in Viet Nam, and even lent his aged, but lively mind and body to the Occupy movement. Whatever nitpicks one might have, no one can argue that the guy retired his conscience and he didn’t take of the wrong side of history. But he was also as famous, and hopefully more so, for being a walking catalogue of American folk musical traditions.
In that life of a catalogue, Seeger embodies both the profundity and expanse of American folk musical traditions and the racial complexity of the same. His interest in African-American life and culture was not just straightforward politics; he wasn’t in this to march with MLK, Jr., then move along. Seeger engaged and reproduced African-American music with as much comfort as he did Great Plains or Appalachian traditions, singing prison and works songs alongside white protest music, spirituals alongside novelty dance tunes. Now, no one can say he wasn’t aware of this complexity. I mean, who has this kind of knowledge of American folk music, really? Very few of us, for sure. But we can see immediately how this sort of thing gets complicated and, for me, makes his legacy worth thinking about in terms of the cultural politics of racialized vernacular forms, and not just as multi-decade activism and iconic 1960s singer (a fate I worry will be his going forward).
For me, and these are just initial thoughts, Seeger can’t be easily (even if he eventually is) folded into the category of cultural appropriator, although he did just that: he played African-American music. Not just any African-American music, we should note, but music that was born of very particular forms of struggle, suffering, survival, and cultural expression from that place. I’m thinking of one song in particular, because it brings the past into the present moment in such important ways: “Midnight Special.” This is one of those songs whose history trails off into the past with an ellipsis, which, in its own way, expresses well the abyssal character of it original setting. “Midnight Special” is a Southern prison song, remembered as an expression from Parchman Farm (a frightening place while also, for that reason, the birthplace of astonishing art). I’d like to think that the song is best known as played by Huddie Ledbetter (aka Leadbelly), but I think its legacy is probably more in white artist recordings (especially Creedence Clearwater Revival). And that’s troubling. The song is about being in prison, dreaming of escape or pardon, worrying about infidelity and betrayal, missing sex, and, quite explicitly, about the abuses of police power and what we now call the prison industrial complex. When Ledbetter sings “boy, you better walk right,” that’s to be taken in all seriousness as a dire warning. You’ll end up in Parchman, waiting for a pardon or luck. And that place, as the well-known book recalls, had the reputation as “worse than slavery.”
So, to sing a song from Parchman Farm is to sing on the edges of slavery. It is also to sing from the perspective of the prisoner, whose suffering is not just that of any prisoner whatsoever (can we say such a category exists in the United States? I don’t think so), but the suffering of Black prisoners in a system and place that continued (and continues) so much of slavery’s methods, values, and cruelty.
Seeger sings this song. It was one of his key songs, in fact, as it was for so many folk musicians in the 1950s and 1960s. Here he is with Arlo Guthrie (note that he gives a verse to Leadbelly at 2:18 – calling him by his full name, not stage name – in order to trouble what might seem like a simple case of appropriation):
Listen to Leadbelly’s version here, when the musician was in his prime. This is an absolutely fabulous version and, in sound, captures so much of what Paul Gilroy calls the sublime in the early African-American tradition.
Leadbelly’s hang on the last half of “Houston,” the lyric that names already in the 1930s what we now call the new Jim Crow (for him, I think, the new slavery, sung as it was during Jim Crow), is everything. It is a memory of pain and expression of rage that needs to be heard, and can be heard clearly and without question. Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic is, for me, one long discourse that allows us to hear that moment in the song.
That moment won’t ever come in a Pete Seeger song. He never intended it to, to be clear, and that might just matter a whole lot. Because in wanting a certain sound – that mimicry that so easily becomes appropriation-as-mockery in an instant – a musician says a lot. The racial structure of the cultural forms Seeger engaged block exactly that, and that’s how it should be. I like that Seeger respected such things. You can hear it in the particular and identifiable style of his songs (that’s part of why his songs don’t connect with me, I think). He loved the traditions, but did not want to be that tradition. Instead, if I can speculate a bit, he seems to have wanted to honor that tradition’s greatness with what he did best: singing his voice, arranging in his way.
And yet there are for me significant matters of cultural politics at stake. The fact that he maintained his own style when appropriating these songs doesn’t forestall serious critical questions. I’m not entirely sure where to go with them. I do know that “Midnight Special” is a particularly important song in this context. It steps beyond, say, a standard white “folk-revival” song like “Walk Right In,” which, while a classic of Memphis-area string band music and thus a cornerstone of Southern Black music, is also a dance tune and, in that time, was what we’d now call a pop song. It’s a great song and displays Gus Cannon’s musical brilliance.
Plenty of white folkies re-did this song in the 1950s and 1960s. For better or worse.
I do avoid the merely polemical temptation against Seeger, however. I don’t want to just say, hey, the guy oversteps here and shows a kind of white privilege, showing how, once again, whiteness means unfettered access to all and everything. Not just because he only passed away yesterday. I hesitate because it’s both plainly true (his appropriation turns on just that privilege) and because, upon closer examination, Seeger actually presents an interesting case that tests our thinking about solidarity and all the ambivalence that follows. Seeger’s social commentary and political action is exceptional. He did politics with the same everyday seriousness as he did music, and maybe that shifts things a little bit. Maybe. I want this to be an open question. Because when we think of solidarity, we don’t just think of shared ideas or broad sympathies. At least I hope we go further. I hope that when we think of solidarity, we think of the willingness of a person (or people) to take on something – maybe very little, but not nothing – of the price of being the oppressed, sharing in some way what it would mean to not be where you are, but instead be in that elsewhere that calls you to express solidarity. How that something manifests itself is complicated, maybe impossible when we look too close, but for now I’m just sketching a boundary.
In his Postcolonial Melancholia book, Gilroy talks about this as a shared vulnerability and uses the activism of “the human shield” as a thumbnail sketch of what that shared sense looks like, when the comfortable act in solidarity with the imperiled. I’ve written a bit about that. Seeger did that sort of thing politically; he, like his racial and ideological predecessor Woody Guthrie, was radical left when radical meant exclusion (has it ever meant anything else in this country?). This makes me pause and think, then, about how such political declarations and commitments impact the cultural politics of musical practice, especially when that practice crosses back and forth over the most obstinate of American ideologies: the color line.
What is cultural politics when confounded, racially, by someone whose life has been an exploration of solidarity? What is the power of solidarity beyond the social and political practice of contesting policy, habits, and institutions? Is socio-political solidarity enough to alter the ethical landscape of cultural politics and the deeply rooted forms of still wholly defensible cultural nationalism? Or is that part of cultural politics, that, because they sustain a life of a people, they (must) remain resistant to boundary breaking? I’m not sure. But these are real questions. Every musical awards show, it seems like they show up again.
Rest in peace, Pete Seeger. You make these questions wonderfully and refreshingly difficult.