This is the first article for a new column I'm writing for ThirdCoastDaily.com
The news of Pete Seeger‘s death was shouted down the basement stairs by my wife. At the time, I was working and thinking about “This Land Is Your Land,” wondering where something like that comes from. Yes, it was a striking coincidence, but it somehow didn’t seem that way. Seeger didn’t write the song, but he was closely associated with it, traveled and sang with Woody Guthrie and pretty much lived everything contained in the lyric.
Pete Seeger was a good example of a private school education gone wrong. To listen to him singing and playing, looking like he just came in from chopping wood, you wouldn’t suspect he was the son of academics and former student at Avon Old Farms (now there’s a preppy name) in Connecticut. His father and stepmother collected and transcribed folks songs, so while he may have been born to the manor, he saw his fair share of cabins and shacks. He heard his first banjo at a square dance festival in North Carolina that his father took him to and later he wrote the book on how to play it.
Seeger’s reputation as a songwriter was never the biggest part of his story and he certainly never caught Guthrie or Bob Dylan in that department. But the few songs he is known for are keepers and quite striking for their beauty. He was well known for the use of older words and ideas to make his point. History passed him and and a few of his comrades right about the time of Dylan’s electric game changer at Newport or shortly after, when Dylan described folk singers as fat and boring. Ouch! But timeless things have a way of shaking off little insults and working their way back into our consciousness.
I teach guitar and was looking for songs for one of my students, a bright ten-year old girl named Grace. I bought a few Peter, Paul and Mary songs. I was surprised at how much I reconnected to the simple beauty in their earlier work. They had a huge hit with Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone.” Who could resist such a perfect illustration of symmetry, a never ending loop of tragedy and longing that doesn’t fade easily from memory. With its source deep in Russian literature and song, it’s a good example of how Seeger labored in the folk tradition, where older ideas are updated and suddenly become brand new. There were even verses added to this song a couple years after he created it.
“If I Had A Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome” and “Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)” were, to varying degrees, old songs made new. Sometimes the line between brand new and slightly used is a little blurry in the folk music business. Dylan has often been accused of appropriation, as well as Led Zeppelin, who wound up paying Willie Dixon a tidy sum for the direct lift of “Whole Lotta Love.” The oral tradition and the concept of intellectual property are still negotiating with each and that’s a whole other discussion. Right now a more pleasant task, let’s look at one of the more exquisite products of Pete Seeger’s imagination.
“Turn! Turn! Turn!” certainly deserves its three exclamation marks, maybe even more. It has biblical language straight from Ecclesiastes, a simple, sturdy melody and chords and it is sticky like peanut butter on a dog’s nose. If you hear it once you’ll be humming along — two times will guarantee that anytime someone mentions it the song will unreel in your brain and generate warm feelings akin to love. There’s really nothing to analyze in a song like this; it relies on the age old trick of repetition. The title repeats at the end of the first two lines of every verse. It’s an odd place for sure, but not unheard of, especially in older (they’re all old, aren’t they?) English folk ballads
Why so much repetition? When the old folk singers, those earlier versions of Pete Seeger or Joan Baez, were working, there were no recordings and few people could read. How would you have gone about making sure someone would remember your song? Dropping a repeated phrase like Turn! Turn! Turn! at strategic points slows the pace and allows you to ponder the words that come before. It allows a song to breathe and unwind in a leisurely way. Not to say that repetition hasn’t been abused, but when it works it creates a lovely suspended feeling, a sense that you are peering back through the mists to a much different time.
The definitive version of this song was performed by The Byrds, who took it exactly where the die-hard folkies wouldn’t go, the land of rock. The Byrds were half a beat behind Dylan in creating folk-rock, a genre that made no sense to anyone until they listened to it. Performed by Roger McGuinn on his Rickenbacker electric twelve-string and Hollywood’s immortal Wrecking Crew, the sound of this (and all the early Byrds recordings) was distinctive. It became the template Tom Petty and many lesser talents used to create hits. The royalty checks probably weren’t sent back by Seeger, a man with warehouses full of integrity, but I bet he thought about it at first. Then I suspect he considered that his song now spoke to millions — it’s been reported he did indeed approve of The Byrds’ version.
Despite all the rock and roll, the song never comes close to losing its religion. When you hear the opening 12 string stabs you almost want to genuflect, it’s the musical equivalent of stained glass. When they pour their gorgeous harmonies over it, you see the clouds part and the heavens revealed. Just one more more message of peace from Pete Seeger, another day at the office for a man who made it his life’s work to fight for justice.
So what makes a song timeless? If there was a formula, it’s safe to say everyone would do it and we could listen to the radio all day with no clinkers. That is why when someone knocks it out of the park, the way Seeger and The Byrds did here, it is so rare and special. There actually was a time when you didn’t have to ask “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” That time, along with Pete Seeger, seems to to be fading fast into the rear view mirror.