In last week’s column, we examined the birth of the American contemporary folk scene, and the role played by the great Woody Guthrie. With the groundwork in place, others were delighted to have the opportunity to sing political songs in front of a larger audience. Very soon after the emergence of Guthrie came Pete Seeger, a New Yorker born in 1919 who fell in love with folk music after seeing a banjo musician at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in North Carolina in 1936.
Seeger (not to be confused with Detroit blue collar rocker Bob Seger) studied at Harvard but lost his scholarship and dropped out after his interest in music and politics took all of his time. At the age of 17, he joined the Young Communist League. While the YCL, founded in 1920, was recently dissolved in 2015, its aim was to encourage young people to study Marxism-Leninism — essentially a set of practises for transforming a capitalist state into a socialist one. In 1942, Seeger left the YCL and joined the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), then left in ’49.
Reports vary on whether Seeger identified as a communist after leaving the party. In 1995 he said, to paraphrase, that communism has no more to do with what the Russians made of it than Christianity has to do with what the churches made of it. He clearly didn’t want to be associated with the Soviet or Asian interpretations of communism, many of the leaders of which were responsible for terrible crimes against their people. But the ideology on a basic level was something that he appears to have subscribed to his whole life, until his death in 2014 at 94.
According to The Guardian newspaper, those beliefs led the FBI to keep an eye on Seeger for 20 years, and keep an enormous file. If anybody ever questions the power that musicians can hold, the fact that a folk musician terrified a government agency tells you all you need to know:
“After the probe into Seeger’s background, a report judged that Seeger was ‘potentially subversive’ and ‘an idealist whose devotion to radical ideologies is such as to make his loyalty to the US under all circumstances questionable’. The document was sent to J Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI.”
– Vanessa Thorpe for The Guardian in 2015
But it makes sense that they’d be scared. The songs of Pete Seeger have passed into the popular consciousness. People who don’t know who Seeger is know the lyrics to some of his songs. The likes of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “If I Had a Hammer” are practically hymns. That’s what terrifies the FBI — that’s what they mean by “subversive”. Isn’t that wonderful?
“If I had a song
I’d sing it in the morning
I’d sing it in the evening
All over this world
I’d sing out danger
I’d sing out a warning
I’d sing out love between
My brothers and my sisters ah-ah
All over this land.”
“If I Had a Hammer” – Pete Seeger.
Singing out danger to his brothers and sisters all over this land — that’s Pete Seeger’s legacy.
The roadmap that would eventually lead to Bob Dylan is complicated and convoluted. Way more ingredients than Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger are in the soup. But having discussed those two and their left leanings, Dylan just feels like an obvious next step.
To be fair, many, many books could (and have) be written on the subject of Bob Dylan alone. There’s genuinely an encyclopedia dedicated to Dylan. And it’s all justified. He’s among the most influential artists in contemporary music, if not the most influential. People will make cases for John Lennon, Elvis Presley, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin…but in the case of Dylan, his influence stretches across just about every genre.
Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota in 1941. He took the name “Dylan” and, in 1960, dropped out of college. The following year, he visited New York in order to see Woody Guthrie on his deathbed, and he stuck around, playing at clubs in Greenwich Village.
The self-titled debut album came out in March ’62 and saw his profile rise, but it was his sophomore effort, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in May ’63 that changed the world. Kicking off with the near-perfect “Blowin’ In the Wind”, a song that poses questions about peace, war, and freedom, the album also features the self-explanatory “Masters of War”, and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, Dylan’s commentary on suffering and warfare written in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis.
Over the course of a 60 year career, Dylan would go on to release thirty-eight studio albums plus many more compilations and live albums. At his best, he’s a genius (an overused word but appropriate here). At his worst, he’s still fascinating and worth the effort. Albums such as The Times They Are a-Changin’, Blonde On Blonde, and Blood On the Tracks near changed the world and, all the while, he polarized opinion like few others. He was famously heckled with the name “Judas” when he chose to “go rock & roll,” putting down the acoustic guitar and plugging in.
But that musical controversy is chicken feed to a man who has made it his business to say his piece, while always questioning everything. Both he and fellow folkie Joan Baez were prominent in the civil rights movement but, by the end of ’63, he complained that he was being manipulated by the folk protest movement.
Over the years, he’s changed religions and written about it. He’s continued to speak out when he deems it necessary. Hey, he was a part of the USA For Africa “We Are the World” thing (looking incredibly awkward in the video). Meanwhile, his voice has changed over the years, leading to very different live renditions of old classics. But any Bob Dylan is a Bob Dylan worth having around.
Recent honors have included a Nobel Peace Prize, and the Medal of Freedom in 2012, awarded by President Obama. Nowadays, Dylan is shaking up the system from within.