Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Phil Ochs and Pete Seeger: a friendship and a sorrow



Even fading and whispery, Pete Seeger's voice still inspired the flourishing of folk song and singing along, as he had especially in the 1950s and '60s (Bob Dylan, Bernice Johnson Reagan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs...). Pete had sung against war (and for World War II), for strikers, for the civil rights movement, for the earth. He was persecuted by the viciously anti-radical - anti-decent, anti-freedom of song American Cold War regime, and rose to become an icon whose words live with us day by day. And Pete lived to the great age - it was for Pete plainly a great age - of 94.

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Pete had a troubadour spirit of nonviolence. There was no one sunk in such darkness that Pete would not reach out to them, even when testifying before the House Unamerican Activities Committee:

"Wherever he went, he never stopped trying to win people over. In 1955, he was compelled to testify about his Communist affiliations before the House Un-American Activities Committee. 'I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion,' he told his bewildered inquisitor. 'I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir.'

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"Where have all the flowers gone..." - here - rings now for the legions of the dead in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia...

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And LBJ and the American elite drown in the Big Muddy here....

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One of my favorite singers who learned from Pete and was, at least in a broad sense, spiritually mentored by him - was Phil Ochs. Many of Phil's songs, "Love me love me love me I'm a liberal" here or "I ain't marchin anymore" here are dazzling politically - little about the defects, perhaps even dementia (the losing of every aspect of integrity and acting on the desire to cancel or deny the existence of those who speak out - "and that's why I'm turning you in") of the Democratic Party and some rich "liberals" remains to be said if you know the words - and Phil could also, for instance, in "Changes" here, write with sadness, love and power.

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But the sorrow of life, and a sense that it was, for him, nearly over (that he would take his own life), lived with Phil. One powerful song suggests: "and you won't hear me singing on this song when I'm gone, so I guess I better do it while I'm here." See here. "When I'm gone" lingers, his sense as much in the other world as here...

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Phil led events in New York and Los Angeles in which he sang "The War is Over" here. And in 1975 as the Vietnamese regained Saigon (what should have resulted from the defeat of French colonialism, armed by the U.S., at Dienbienphu in 1954 and the Geneva Accords in 1956; President Eisenhower tossed out the Accords: "if there is an election in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh will get 80% of the vote..." - Phil sang to a 100,000 people in New York the truth - "I declare the war is over, it's ooover..."

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There is the incident in Africa where he was robbed, beaten and his vocal chords harmed (he lost the upper range of his voice). I can't remember another incident of robbery or even violence where the victim's voice was harmed, this victim a singer. So the inference that American "intelligence" had something to do with this is not far (consider the odds of its happening randomly).

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Phil was a friend of Victor Jara, the great Chilean artist, whose hands were cut off by Pinochet (Henry Kissinger engineered the coup and the murders, under the smiling aegis of President Richard Nixon) in a stadium of torture and then he, along with many others, was murdered. See here.

Here is Victor's last poem, Estadio Chile. And the Chilean people have now renamed this place Victor Jara Stadium...

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Phil lost his way...

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An aura of suicide long surrounded him. So when Phil asked Pete Seeger one night to talk with him, and Pete felt he had to go home, to take a train upstate, Pete probably knew that talking might have made some difference but not that this was the night. According to Neil Young, Pete lived with the bitter taste of his decision - one should not turn away from a friend in need even if one cannot save her (or oneself) - for forty years.

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Pete could probably not have saved Phil from killing himself - Phil was meditating on it, singing about it. Each of us lives these things for herself, makes the decision in a lonely, terrifying and embittered moment.

But he could have done something that Phil asked him to, could have reached back to him at that moment...

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Pema Chodoren tells a story of a conversation of an American psychologist, wondering about guilt (Americans are consumed with guilt compared to Tibetans; suffering genocide as well as coming from a Buddhist traditions gives the latter a different view) questioning the Dalai Lama about whether there were things he regretted.

An old monk had come to him and asked about whether he should do a physically intense form of yoga (one imagined for a teenager with great suppleness, flexibility). The Dalai Lama advised him against it.

The monk accepted the advice. But he then went home and killed himself, hoping to be reincarnated in a younger body.

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The psychologist exclaimed to the Dalai Lama: "How did you ever get rid of that feeling [of being, in some way, responsible]?"

The Dalai Lama sat there silently for a few minutes, and then responded "I didn't. It's still there."

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But the Dalai Lama was not guilt-ridden. He could touch but let go of the sorrow - of all that we cannot mend, bear some responsibility for - and act to heal the world, For he has had great responsibility, and nurtured in Dharmasala and around the world a nonviolent community of exiles.

He did not forget his conversation with the monk - the pain of what he had not done was still there - but he did not carry the monk with him...

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One may hope that it was, at last, the same for Pete, singing...

Only the small in heart can miss the gifts he brought us.

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"The Opinion Pages, New York Times

Pete Seeger, Neil Young and the Importance of Letting Go
JAN. 28, 2014

Editorial Observer by Jesse Wegman

Four decades later, Pete Seeger couldn’t let it go.

It was a cool night in September, the rain was coming down in sheets, and Pete was holed up in his dressing room at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, in upstate New York, minutes before a surprise appearance at the annual Farm Aid benefit concert. (For the occasion, he’d added a new, anti-fracking verse to the end of “This Land Is Your Land.”) It would turn out to be one of his last major public performances.

Outside on the lawn, I waited with tens of thousands of fans who were about to get a lesson in four-part harmony from a 94-year-old man with only a banjo and the warbly vestige of a voice. Backstage, Pete stood by a wall, strapped to his banjo, thin and tall as a birch tree. Neil Young, one of the show’s longtime headliners, had stopped in to pay his respects, and the conversation soon turned to the night in 1976 when Phil Ochs hanged himself.

On Tuesday morning, the day after Pete Seeger died, Mr. Young told me the story that Pete had told to him: Pete had been in New York City and was late for the train home to Beacon, an hour up the Hudson River. Ochs, a good friend and fellow folk singer, was in trouble. He’d been depressed and drinking for a long time, and he reached out to Pete.

“Phil really wanted to talk,” Mr. Young recalled. Pete had to choose between staying in the city another night or getting home. He chose the train.

“Pete remembered shaking hands with him, and when he said goodbye to him for the last time,” Mr. Young said. “He regretted not talking to him.”

For 37 years, the decision to leave that night ate at Pete. “ ‘I wish I’d done something more to stop that from happening,’ ” Mr. Young recalled him saying shortly before he took the stage.

Pete Seeger used to own audiences like that one. He knew their rhythms and needs; he believed in the power of a thousand voices singing in unison. The world could be changed, and it all started with five strings and a melody.

Wherever he went, he never stopped trying to win people over. In 1955, he was compelled to testify about his Communist affiliations before the House Un-American Activities Committee. “I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion,” he told his bewildered inquisitor. “I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir.”

Perhaps that insistent optimism was why, standing backstage on a rainy September night, he still couldn’t accept that he had been powerless to save one man’s life.

Mr. Young understood. He had been in a similar situation 20 years ago. Kurt Cobain, the lead singer for Nirvana, had reached out in the days before he took his own life. “We were trying to connect, and we didn’t,” Mr. Young said. “I’d read some things he said, and I wanted to give him some relief.”

Mr. Young recounted his advice to Pete that evening. “Don’t try to take it with you. Leave it where it happened. I felt similar to how Pete felt for a while. But there’s nothing — you can’t carry it with you.” Mr. Young paused. “Pete carried it for a long time.”

Correction: January 31, 2014
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Pete Seeger’s appearance at the Farm Aid benefit in September as his last major public performance. He appeared at Carnegie Hall with Arlo Guthrie on Nov. 30."

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Using His Voice to Bring Out a Nation’s
By JON PARELES JAN. 28, 2014
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The singer and champion of progressive causes died on Monday at 94. via Reuters

Pete Seeger sang until his voice wore out, and then he kept on singing, decade upon decade. Mr. Seeger, who died on Monday at 94, sang for children, folk-music devotees, union members, civil-rights marchers, antiwar protesters, environmentalists and everyone else drawn to a repertoire that extended from ancient ballads to brand-new songs about every cause that moved him. But it wasn’t his own voice he wanted to hear. He wanted everyone to sing along.

Although Mr. Seeger summed up Vietnam-era frustration [a weal word: fury...] when he wrote “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” and created a lasting antiwar parable with “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” he wasn’t simply a protest singer or propagandist. Like his father, the musicologist Charles Seeger, and his colleague the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger was devoted to songs that had been passed on through generations of people singing and playing together. He was determined — in an era when recording was rarer and broadcasting limited — to get those songs heard and sung anew, lest they disappear.

VIDEO|1:33Richard Leacock‘To Hear Your Banjo Play’ Pete Seeger plays at a square dance in an edited clip of the 1946 film, “To Hear Your Banjo Play.” here

That put him at the center of the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, in all its idealism, earnestness and contradictions. Collectors found songs that had archetypal resonance, sung in unpretty voices and played with regional quirks, and transcribed them to be learned from sheet music. The folk revival prized authenticity — the work song recorded in prison, the fiddle tune recorded on a back porch — and then diluted it as the making of amateur collegiate strum-alongs. Mr. Seeger and his fellow folk revivalists freely adapted old songs to new occasions, using durable old tunes to carry topical thoughts, speaking of a “folk tradition” of communal authorship and inevitable change. They would warp a song to preserve it. (In succeeding years, copyright problems could and did ensue.)

It was an era of purists generating the impure, and, sloppy or saccharine as it could be, it turned out well. Folk-revival ditties pointed their more dedicated listeners — particularly musicians — back to original versions, extending the reach of regional styles. The hootenanny movement spurred people to play music instead of passively consume it, and the noncommercial, do-it-yourself spirit — though not the sound of banjos and acoustic guitars — would resound in punk-rock, which had its own kind of protest songs.

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Mr. Seeger in 1967, when the folk revival was developing into an antiwar movement. D.Steinberg/Associated Press here

Even more important, the folk revival, with Mr. Seeger as one of its prime movers, introduced American pop to a different America: the one outside Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood, where a volunteer gospel choir could sing with more gumption than a studio chorus, and where a decades-old song about hard times could speak directly to the present. The folk revival reminded the pop world that songs could be about something more than romance — a notion that the revival’s greatest student and transformer, Bob Dylan, would run with. Mr. Seeger also learned and performed songs from abroad; there were folks there, too.

Mr. Seeger’s discography runs to dozens of albums: topical songs, Mother Goose rhymes, banjo instruction, African songs, lullabies, blues, Civil War songs, Spanish Civil War songs and far more. His canon was selective but not exclusive; he wanted all those songs to get more chances. His cultural mission was democratic.

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In 2011, Pete Seeger, 92, joining Occupy Wall Street by marching from a concert at Symphony Space to Columbus Circle. Marcus Yam for The New York Times

His mission was political too, of course. In 2012, Mr. Seeger told an interviewer on WNYC how he would like to be remembered: “He made up songs to try and persuade people to do something,” not just say something. As the 1940s began, he recorded songs reflecting the Communist party line; accusations of Communist Party affiliations got him questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee and blacklisted during the McCarthy era. More felicitously, Mr. Seeger recast traditional songs to rally unions, civil-rights groups, Vietnam War protesters and environmentalists. Mr. Seeger was a longtime mentor for topical songwriters. The best of his own songs, like the biblical “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” reach for cycles and archetypes, not ephemeral complaints.

Pop tastes quickly turned away from the folk revival; the Beatles were more fun. In the 21st century, folky protest and topical songs have generally been shunted to the far sidelines. Although Bruce Springsteen has taken songs from Mr. Seeger’s repertory to arenas, social consciousness is now disseminated more widely through metal and hip-hop. Yet the plink of acoustic instruments is still a token of sincerity. The banjo has resurfaced in groups like Mumford & Sons, while fascination with the folk-revival era animates the Coen brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Yet Mr. Seeger wasn’t aiming for pop celebrity anyway. He had all the audiences he needed: at Carnegie Hall or at Barack Obama’s inauguration or at a local coffeehouse, in a high-school classroom or at a union meeting. He had the kindly demeanor of a favorite uncle and the encouraging tone of a secular preacher as he picked his banjo and taught another chorus to yet another audience, beaming as the singalong grew louder and more confident, turning one more group of folks into a community."


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