- 11 Feb 14
The death of Pete Seeger coincided with the 30th anniversary of one of Ireland's greatest ever singers, Luke Kelly. Banjo players both, their music remains an inspiration to millions...
The feeding frenzy that descended on the French president Francois Hollande in recent weeks over his relationship with actress Julie Gayet obscured a significant change of position on Hollande’s part: he now describes himself as a social democrat and not as a socialist. That one who spent his life in the French Socialist party feels that he needs to be seen to move himself towards the centre is telling. It is another victory for proponents of economic libertarianism.
And if few now proudly describe themselves as socialists, what of those who would describe themselves as communists? Yet that’s exactly what two great, and now sadly late, banjo-playing giants of folk music called themselves: Luke Kelly, the 30th anniversary of whose death has just passed, and Pete Seeger who died within the last two weeks. Seeger was 94 when he died. His biography is rich in encounters and collaborations with a pantheon of American musicians, in three great waves.
The first was when he met and travelled with Woody Guthrie meeting Cisco Houston, Leadbelly, Alan Lomax and others along the way, becoming himself an active agent in leftist agitation, union activities and finding and singing the songs and stories of ordinary Americans. His group The Weavers made Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’ an anthem of the working people.
His leftist activities duly landed him in hot water during the so-called McCarthy era, when he was blacklisted for alleged communist sympathies (though he had long abandoned the Young Communist League) and for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Though this greatly reduced his access to radio and TV, he kept working, both on the college circuit in America and outside the US.
The second wave of his collaborations came in the 1960s with both the folk boom and the civil rights movement. Hip new stars like Bob Dylan drew Seeger back towards the foreground. Seeger songs, including ‘If I Had a Hammer’, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ and ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ were massive hits.
The third collaborative wave came a generation later. A host of singers, including Steve Earle, Ani DiFranco, Billy Bragg, Ry Cooder and, especially, Bruce Springsteen raised the Seeger flag again. If the latter’s ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’ was born of respect for Woody Guthrie, the tour and the album, The Seeger Sessions, was an extended fan tribute to a man Springsteen regarded as not just one of the founding fathers of American music but also as an heroic man of principle and freedom and justice – themes that Springsteen has increasingly espoused.
But Seeger had more strings to his banjo than leftist Americana. His circle also included composers, writers, actors and artists such as Jackson Pollock. Pete’s stepmother Ruth Crawford Seeger is rated among the more important modernist composers of the 20th century.
He garnered a bit of a reputation as a Luddite, for his horror-stricken response to Bob Dylan’s electric turn at the Newport Folk Festival, but in the long run he could not be accused of any lack of generosity of spirit; a stream of musicians, writers and film-makers have attested to his warmth and hospitality.
Pete Seeger saw himself as “a planter of seeds”. Those seeds also landed on this side of the Atlantic and one of those who responded was Luke Kelly.
In both music and life, Luke was a force of nature. Indeed, for Luke, music and life were one and the same thing. He was born into Dublin’s north inner city. He left school early and, after a few years of bits and pieces, went to work in England. Always musical, he acquired a banjo and began to learn songs and to busk.
This happened against the backdrop of the emerging folk revival. He was strongly influenced by the Scottish singer and activist Ewan McColl, whom Luke greatly admired. Of course, McColl was married to Peggy Seeger.
The folk revival spawned the ballad boom. Much good came of this but also an awful lot of hairy bowsy-style bawling. No matter. Luke Kelly was way above all of that. He was a founding member of The Dubliners and they were the prototypes for hard-living raucous sessioneers. Yet they were also, in the manner of Pete Seeger, intelligent and curious and entirely at home with musicians and composers of other codes, as well as with theatre and with literature.
Luke sang songs of the people: of workers, of migrants and of Travellers. He, and The Dubliners, were entertainers, yes. Their gigs were celebratory and participatory, yes. But they knew a good song when they heard one and they knew how to deliver it too. Not only that, both Luke and Ronnie Drew took to the stage as to the manor born. Sure, they were hairy, but bowsies they were not.
There are different ways of expressing why both Pete Seeger and Luke Kelly mattered. They dealt in substance, passion, depth and songs of relevance. Though framed by its popular origins, their art was critical and often inflammatory. And it was characterised by empathy and solidarity with those against whom the odds are stacked; and by defiance of those who do the stacking. Their goal was to contribute to social justice, peace and human rights. At the very core of their art was a belief in the dignity and integrity of ordinary people and in how that could be expressed, celebrated and mobilised by music.
In a song called ‘Three Chords And The Truth’ on his album My Name Is Buddy, Ry Cooder sings
“Now they took Pete Seeger before the law/ And put him on the witness stand/ But he stood right up to tyranny/ With just a banjo in his hand/ Such a righteous banjo picker/ Watchin’ out for me and you/ That was just a man who wouldn’t back down/ On three chords and the truth.”
Pete’s life was far longer than Luke’s, but both have earned their sleep. For the rest of us, we need new generations of righteous banjo players, guitar players, drummers and all the rest, to make that stand once again, for three chords and the truth...