When you are perpetually jaded and cynical it’s hard to have heroes. The only heroes now left standing for me now are Willie Nelson and Buffy St.Marie, in the last ten years many of my folk and country music heroes have become old and died. Johnny Cash, June Carter and Waylon Jennings departed while I sat in the north heartbroken I would never get to meet them, I yearned to show them that I am a new generation doing what they did in my own original way. I drove by Stompin Tom Connors house, slowing down, fighting myself until I decided not to stop and kept driving till my last chance to meet him was in the rearview mirror. Again he died and I felt empty inside for it, much the way I feel today.
I should count myself lucky that I been able to meet a couple of my heroes. I spent several days with Buffy St.Marie in 2010 and got to spend some time with Utah Philips a number of months before he died. There are other people I can’t put in the category of hero such as Corb Lund. These are my peers who I respect beyond words for their abilities with their craft such as Geoff Berner Washboard Hank, Andrew Neville and Tim Hus. When it comes to actual heroes there are only so many in my mind. As of January 27th 2014 I will never get that chance to sit and talk with Pete Seeger and see him as a real person before me. I have lost one of the few heroes I had left on this earth.
The songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie have been with me for as long as I can remember and likely before that. I recall Pete from Sesame Street and I recall being very young singing the Pete and Woody hits in school. I remember sitting in a school assembly in grade 2 with everyone singing a Canadianized version of This Land Is Your Land as though Woody Guthrie’s politics were exactly what school children needed to be exposed to.
In the year 2000 I decided once and for all that my future was not in punk rock, even if I continued to love and listen to it for the rest of my life. I decided to start my own solo show not because I thought I was any good but because I didn’t want to have to rebuild bands all the time….if it was my project nobody but me could quit it. I wanted to play a kind of music that could be accepted in any small prairie town I ended up in. I wanted to play folk music so that when the appocolypse came and there were no more amplifiers I still had songs to sing. I wanted to play folk music so that I could tell stories and say something meaningful. I thought I could make a difference in the movement with my voice. It was a deliberate and conscious choice to put punk rock and my pentatonic blues style to rest and become a folk singer once and for all.
So I dove back into the stories of all those past folk singers. I spent many nights reading about Woody and Pete and Ledbelly. I romanticized them and tried to fathom what it must have been like in the days of Joe Hill. I listened to Pete’s smooth voice and told myself that it might be okay to actually try singing as opposed to my raspy thing I did out of fear of showing my true voice. Pete’s positive message and gentle sounds soothed me to sleep. Soon I was busking on the streets of Vancouver singing Pete and Woody songs while I scoured through the cassette tapes Co-op Radio was tossing to secure every copy of a Pete or Weavers record I could find. I sang Follow The Drinking Gourd everywhere I went for three years as a regular part of my show, after that I finished many shows with We Shall Overcome.
My stepdad would buy me a Woody Guthrie book every year for my birthday and mom sent it out to me. They were proud of me because they figured I was in the tradition of real folk singers and that it was not a phase. We argued about Pete as my step-dad said he was a musical thief but I rebutted that the very essence of three chord folk songs is copying off of the greats who came before us. My wifes dad recorded a Pete Seeger documentary and sent it to me. I would be lying if I didn’t say Pete Seeger was one of the top folk music influences on me despite the fact that I have much more in common with Woody personally than Pete. I am much more abraissive then Pete Seeger was, nonetheless his kindness and love affected me from afar.
When I think of the folk music posers of my time, like Bob Dylan, I shake my head and turn to a Pete Seeger album. He was never in it for personal glory. Dylan was a middle class city boy who stole Woody’s radical redneck shtick and used it to serve his own desires and fuel his own arrogance. Watch a Bob Dylan interview from the 1960’s and watch a Pete Seeger one right after. I have found Bob’s ego and attitude more than repulsive while Pete’s voice is like a warm fire you wish to cuddle up to for security, it’s obvious when you hear Pete talk that he believed in something. Pete wasn’t out there to look as cool as he possibly could, he wanted nothing to get in the way of his message.
Pete Seeger maintained his politcs and radical edge until the point of being blacklisted and called a communist by the American government. He did not waver in his beliefs, he was clear that his politics and message were more important than himself and his financial gain…that he stood for principals that transcended fame and glory. He didn’t write political songs to ride the social trends that made Dylan a superstar, he did it even at a time that extreme repression came back upon those who dared to voice the truth. He sang those songs because he believed in their meaning, Bob sang them because he had a vision for his own glory.
When I think of folk singers, like Pete and Utah Philips, I think of people who never got the easy glory…they wrestled through forty and fifty and sixty years of playing music and telling stories. They didn’t produce one hit for the radio to survive off for the rest of their lives. They slowly built their alliances and friendships, inspired people, changed people’s attitudes, encouraged others, put on brilliant shows, played brilliant songs, stood for brilliant principals, made time for children and never backed down. They didn’t become instant celebrities, they slowly built their reputation and fanbases until one day people looked at them and called them legends.
I don’t see that I’ll have a day when suddenly I can say I have had success. I know that like these people I will be an old man before I ever get the limited appreciation that’s coming to me. That’s what they taught me, that by staying steadfast in my beliefs and approach and keeping at it for a lifetime I will achieve something in music…perhaps I’ll never get a grammy or a juno but by following their examples I will know that it wasn’t all for nothing. In fact I know that I can never chase fame because it is morally repugnant in the tradition of the folk singers I follow, we still believe in touching hearts more than we believe in getting rich.
The folk and country singers these days that fight to get to the very top are often self absorbed arseholes more interested in cocaine, hookers, parties, money and glory. They have nothing in common with the gentle voice and wisdom of Pete Seeger. They are made by a cookie cutter and their songs are devoid of meaning. We are quickly losing our radical folk and outlaw country legends. It breaks my heart that I never was in a position to get to know these people. I could have learned so much more yet. 94 years on earth was not long enough for a man like Pete Seeger.
Rest in Peace Pete, i love you…joey