A review of Where Have All the Flowers Gone: Stories, Songs, Seeds, Robberies By Pete Seeger, edited by Peter Blood. Sing Out Corporation, Bethlehem, Pa., 1994. 288 pages. $17.95/paperback.
Hear ye, hear ye, all musical Friends and friends of music! Behold: a musical autobiography by the inimitable song writer and folksinger, Pete Seeger—a book that has just about everything. Moreover, it cannot help but leave the reader feeling thankful jubilation and the highest admiration for the care with which it was assembled. There are 200 songs, most presented in their entirety, and virtually all include guitar or banjo accompaniments. There are also keyboard accompaniments and parts written for percussion, which Pete loves and people love to do.
Seeger explains how to lead a group in singing most songs in the book, even including what to say in order to get people started. The fingering and tablature for the accompanying instruments are carefully written, and instruction is given on how to bring in each voice in a part song. Complex rhythms are explained in detail throughout the book; there are even separate rhythmic exercises such as “A 5-part Handclap,” which looked almost too challenging for me.
Born in 1919 in New York City, he came from a family of music professionals and writers. He began to play a variety of instruments by ear at an early age and, while still a teenager, met Alan Lomax, the famous folksong collector. A few years later he met Woody Guthrie and soon was off and running with his guitar, ukulele, and banjo. Dropping out of college at age 19, he became part of an artists’ group, a branch of the Young Communist League, and joined with others in presenting puppet shows to striking farmers north of New York City. His songs for hard-hit farmers were an important part of these early endeavors.
Traveling around the country with Woody Guthrie in 1940, he discovered that writing songs was “a heady experience.” They traveled throughout the West and South, hitchhiking and riding freights. At the end of this trip, he and two others formed his first singing group, the Almanac Singers. Appearing at many left-wing rallies and conferences, Seeger composed a spate of songs, many critical of President Roosevelt and his prewar agricultural policies.
A year later, as Hitler invaded the U.S.S.R., Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and others of their circle did what Pete terms “the great flipflop,” supporting the war effort and in his case enlisting in the U.S. Army. After his marriage to Toshi-Aline Ohta in 1943, he was sent overseas where he “mostly played the banjo.” In the postwar years appeared the first issue of the People’s Songs bulletin. With the Cold War taking over, musicians felt the need of sharing songs and ideas. One of the most famous of movement songs, “We Shall Overcome,” appeared in this bulletin in 1947. The first issue of Sing Out! magazine appeared in 1950, with “The Hammer Song” on the cover. By now Pete Seeger was singing and playing his banjo with the Weavers.
Seeger’s role in Vietnam War protests is familiar to all who attended any of the big demonstrations. At nearly every one he could be heard leading “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “The Hammer Song,” or the long chant for peace, “All We Are Asking.” Everyone grew used to the pleasant voice and warm persona that gave so much hope during that drawn-out and cruel war.
His “Project Clearwater” on the Hudson River during the 1970s and 1980s must be one of Seeger’s most satisfying endeavors. Discovering that he enjoyed sailing—and that the formerly beautiful river was terribly polluted—Pete bought a large sloop and began a campaign to clean up the Hudson. Neighbors and residents in the river area joined enthusiastically, and soon groups were lobbying Congress for an amendment to the Clean Water Act. School children went for boat rides, singing along with Pete and his banjo. As of 1993, the Hudson River was safe for swimming. Parents of small children will be enchanted with the chapter “Kids.” In it are charming Seeger songs that parents will find easy to sing and kids will love.
“From the Great Old Book” is a special chapter. Here were things I never expected to find: a full arrangement, with tablature for banjo, of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” including new words and a modified four-part harmony for the chorale section of the piece. Nearby, a corollary from Bach: “0 Sacred World Now Wounded,” with Seeger’s fitting words to the well-known chorale from the St. Matthew Passion. There’s a wonderful set of new words for “Old Hundred” (the Doxology), including an interesting three-part harmonization. This big and beautiful book is a potpourri of delights for the musician; for parents and grandparents; for historians of peace and other movements in American culture; and for persons of other nationalities who wish for a better world. Pete Seeger is an optimistic and ebullient personality, sensitive to the horrors and dangers of this century, yet hopeful that the world will still be around in 200 years.
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