"'If I Had A Hammer'? Well, what's stopping you? Go to the hardware store; they're about a buck-ninety, tops."
--- James Lileks,
Minneapolis Star Tribune
A lot has been written about revered folk singer Pete Seeger since he passed away in late January.
To tell you the truth, I pretty much just remember the guy from his guest appearances on Sesame Street when I was a kid. So, as usual, I'll just introduce the works of other, more talented writers...
The day after Mr. Seeger's death, Bruce Springsteen told a sold-out crowd in South Africa that he had lost a great friend, and proceeded to sing a rendition of Seeger's protest anthem “We Shall Overcome”.
It was interesting that Springsteen was in South Africa when his hero died. About 2 weeks before Mr. Seeger went to that big Little Red Schoolhouse up in the sky, Mark Steyn wrote an essay about the famous South African song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, and Pete's relation to it. Seeger fans may remember it as “Wimoweh”, which was recorded by his band the Weavers. (Later, in 1961, Brooklyn band the Tokens released it with lyrics as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”.) According to the Wikipedia entry about the song, Seeger wrote that he interpreted it as being about a lion that will one day protect the Africans from European colonialism (which is ironic if you read further).
The song was actually written by a black South African man named Solomon Linda, and originally called “Mbube” (the South African Zulu tribe word for “lion').
“Mbube” went from being a song to a new vocal style, best exemplified by Ladysmith Black Mambazo (who sang on Paul Simon's Graceland album), inspired by the Zulu admonition of “Cothoza, bafana” - which loosely translates to “Tread carefully, boys.” Here's some of that article from Steyn:
"Tread carefully, boys" is good advice for anyone in the music business. A few years after Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds made their hit record, it came to the notice of Pete Seeger, on the prowl for yet more "authentic" "traditional" "vernacular" "folk music" for the Weavers to make a killing with. He misheard "Mbube" and transcribed it as "Wimoweh". That's a great insight into the "authenticity" of the folk boom: the most famous Zulu word on the planet was invented by a New York socialist in 1951. Still, Seeger was chanting all the way to the bank. "Wimoweh" is a tune that works in any form - as big band (Jimmy Dorsey), folk-rock (Nanci Griffith),” country (Glen Campbell), Euro-easy listening (Bert Kaempfert), kiddie-pop (*NSync), reggae (Eek-A-Mouse) military march (the New Zealand Army Band), exotica (Yma Sumac), Yiddish (Lipa Schmeltzer), football singalong (the official theme of the 1986 England World Cup Squad). And that's before we get to REM and They Might Be Giants and Baha Men, and, of course, The Lion King. Solomon Linda's song has penetrated every corner of the globe. It's the most famous tune ever to have come out of Africa.
He and his family must be multi-multi-millionaires, right? Not exactly. Linda sold it to the Gallo record company for ten shillings: that would be about 87 cents. Tread carefully, boy. In 1962, just as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was reaching Number One around the world, he died of kidney disease in Soweto, on the edge of Johannesburg, in a concrete hovel with a couple of bedrooms with dirt floors covered in cow dung. He left his widow the equivalent of $22 in the bank and unable even to afford a headstone for his grave. For the last decade he'd swept floors and made the tea at the packing house of the Gallo company. His family lived on a diet of maize porridge - "pap" - and chicken feet.
Later in the article, Steyn addresses Seeger's defense of Mr. Linda's fate:
The child of wealthy New York radicals, Seeger has always been avowedly anti-capitalist - supposedly. Yet his publisher had a deal with Gallo Music: they snaffled up the rights to "Mbube" cheap and in return sub-licensed to Gallo the South African and Rhodesian rights to "Wimoweh". And Seeger knew Solomon Linda was the composer. He says now that back in the Fifties he instructed his publishers to give his royalties from the song to Linda, and he was shocked, shocked to discover decades later that they hadn't in fact been doing so. But it never occurred to him, as an unworldly anti-capitalist, to check his royalty statements. It was, on his part, supposedly a sin of omission. Not everyone can plead the same accidental oversight. Having persuaded Linda to sign away his copyright four decades earlier, the relevant parties made sure to slide some forms in front of his illiterate widow in 1982 and his daughters some years later to make sure the appropriation paperwork was kept in order.
Shortly after Mr. Seeger's demise, Joe Queenan wrote a story for the Wall Street Journal called “Why Pete Seeger Sent Me a Check for $5”. It detailed how Mr. Queenan, in 1988, wrote a satirical article for the New Republic about how President Nixon and the leaders of the anti-Vietnam War movement made a secret deal in 1970. The deal was that Nixon would end the war if the movement put an end to folk music. For 15 years the folkies honored the agreement, and now they were starting to renege on it. From the WSJ article by Joe Queenan:
Then one day, I got a letter from Pete Seeger, who died this week at age 94, asking if he could get the story reprinted in Sing Out!, the folkie equivalent of Vibe. "Too bad you didn't do it earlier!" he wrote. Well, that floored me. I'd always thought of Pete as a deadly serious, hard-assed old Stalinist, and here, lo and behold, the banjo-plucking poet of the proles actually seemed to have a sense of humor. So I told him to go ahead and contact the New Republic about reprint rights.
Soon after, Pete wrote again, saying he wanted to pay me for my efforts. He enclosed a check for $5. It had a cute little image of a red farmhouse, with the names "Peter Seeger and Toshi-Aline Seeger," his wife, across the top. In that letter, Pete cautioned that the editor of Sing Out! might not publish the story after all because Tracy Chapman's record was such a big hit in 1988, "and close behind her is that other woman, Michelle Shocked."
My dire warnings about folk music had come too late. The Apocalypse was upon us. But Pete sent me the five bucks anyway. Because each should be paid according to his wants and each according to his needs.
As Joe points out, Mr. Seeger didn't hesitate to spread it around. That's probably why, despite screwing a South African songwriter out of massive royalties, he was only worth $4.2 million at the time of his death - which is a full $2.6 million short of being a member of the dreaded ONE PERCENT, whom he heroically fought against by singing at the Occupy Wall Street protests. (The best things in life are free, but $4.2 million gets you membership in the proletariat.)
Shortly after the legendary folk singer's death, Ronald Radosh wrote “Seeger Was a Useful Idiot for Stalin”. As you'll read from the its first few paragraphs, Ronald Radosh knew Pete Seeger even better than Joe Queenan did:
Pete Seeger’s death at the age of 94 has brought forth scores of celebratory tributes. America had long ago showered him with honors, which all but made up for the scorn with which he was once held in the age of the blacklist. Yet, an honest appreciation of Pete Seeger cannot be left at what most accolades have done. Indeed, since his political vision, his service over the decades to the brutality of Soviet-era Stalinism and to all of the post-Cold War leftist tyrannies, was inseparable from the music he made, it simply cannot be overlooked. For Seeger’s voice was heard in defense of causes in which only fools could still believe. As Paul Berman put it, “Let us sing ‘If I Had a Hammer,’ then, and, at every third verse, let our hammers bop Pete Seeger on the head for having been a fool and an idiot.”
And calling him a fool and an idiot is, indeed, not too harsh a judgment. I say that sadly. Pete was a childhood hero of mine. I studied banjo with him, got to know him, and visited him at the legendary home he built from scrap in Beacon, N.Y.
Radosh offers a laundry list of Seeger's sins: His support of Hitler during the short-lived Nazi-Soviet Pact, his traveling to Cuba to accept an award from the murderous Castro regime, his handing over of song royalties from “Turn, Turn, Turn” to the boycott-divestment-sanctions movement against Israel, his support of unilateral American disarmament and Soviet propaganda campaigns during the Cold War, his songs – like “Hey Zhankoye” - an ode to Stalin's supposed freeing of Soviet Jews while famous Jewish poets were being arrested and murdered as American spies and Zionist agents.
Radosh called Seeger out for his support of Stalin in a 2007 New York Sun article. (Seeger supported Stalin even longer than his buddy Woody Guthrie did.) The singer finally conceded he was wrong to simply dismiss Uncle Joe as a “hard driver” all these years, and actually wrote an anti-Stalin song to, uh, try to make up for it.
Oh well, better late than never. Right?
Solomon Linda - “Mbube”.
The Weavers - “Wimoweh”.
The Tokens - “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”.
“City of Strangers” skit from the late 1980s TV program, The Tracey Ullman Show.