|Pete Seeger performs at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival. Photograph by Diana Davies.|
Pete Seeger’s January 27th passing sparked a groundswell of stories and shared memories about the man, his music, and the many causes he supported and pioneered. Of the millions of people impacted by his works, I am one of the countless banjoists who identify Pete Seeger as the reason I became a banjo player. And like everyone else, I too have a Seeger story that I want to share. It moves beyond having had the chance to meet Pete, share a photo, ask for his autograph, and have a conversation. It is a personal story illustrated through archival connections found in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections (RRFAC) at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
While I now self identify as an archivist, ethnomusicologist, and a musician, I was in a very different place in the early months of 1994. I was at a personal crossroads. As a high-energy 19-year old who lacked any inspired direction, I had few places to meaningfully focus my artistic and service-oriented disposition. One day, I serendipitously tuned into my local PBS station and began watching the 1981 documentary The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time!, which featured Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Pete Seeger.
|The Weavers - Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman - perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, Illinois, January 13, 1958. Photograph by Robert C. Malone.|
|Pete Seeger plays his banjo at his home in Beacon, N.Y., November 3, 2005. Photograph by Bruce Mondschain, used by permission.|
For example, I am part of a younger generation working to better understand the American experience. As I gain a longer view of my own history, my view of the past continues to evolve as well. I remain astonished by the lengths to which people have gone to selectively oppress individuals or entire groups because of who they are. Learning about Pete’s experiences confronting the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), I admire his personal resolve to stand up for his beliefs and the rights of others, which is something he did for his entire life.
|Telegram from Pete Seeger to Sing Out! Magazine, 12 March 1962. From the Moses and Frances Asch Collection|
Pete was also one of the many notable voices to sing out during the Civil Rights Movement. Pete and his banjo were part of a larger effort to confront the national traumas that began with slavery, whose violence continued through the institutional racism and segregation of the Jim Crow era, and whose legacy in many ways persists. In the 21st century, efforts that proclaim we are moving on to victory are still relevant to people working to overcome many forms of injustice here in the United States and around the world.
Ultimately, Pete Seeger will always be a cherished, essential figure in my life as I continue working as an archivist and an active member of the banjo community. It is reassuring to know that materials found in places such as the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections provide valued reminders of where we’ve been, where we’re going, and the things we should never forget. That consolation helps me to see how these archival connections can serve as living links to those loved ones who are no longer with us. Thinking about archival materials in this way makes it much easier to welcome the comfort, wit, and sincerity of Arlo Guthrie’s recent Facebook statement about Pete Seeger’s death, “Well, of course he passed away…but that doesn’t mean he’s gone.”
Greg Adams, Processing Archivist
Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
|People march in an anti-war rally in New York City, April 27, 1968. Pete Seeger can be seen center right, Seeger's daughter Tinya is at center, and Arlo Guthrie is center left. Photograph by Diana Davies.|