New York Times, January 23, 1966

AMERICAN MINSTREL’S SONG OF SUCCESS

by Joan Barthel

Although you know before you meet Pete Seeger that he will not be the usual television performer saying the usual things, both because of his eventful past and because he seems to need television much less than it needs him, the disclaimer still comes with surprising suddenness. “Too many newspapers and magazines write about people like me and Joan Baez. They should write about folksingers like Frank Proffitt, who died the other day. He was, in his own quiet way, a great man, though he didn’t become rich and famous. I wish they would write about these lesser-knowns.”

He says it in a voice that conveys both the sincerity of the protest and the resignation to the futility of making it, since Seeger seems acutely aware — “painfully” might be more apt — that rueful wishing can change nothing, least of all his stature in folk music, which, by being approximately as Hope is to diamond, has brought him into the center of the limelight where he sits today, blinking.

For “rich and famous” is a phrase as ill-tailored to this dreamy, gentle man as the work shirt he often wears while performing, both fit, but awkwardly. The fame has built up over a quarter of a century, beginning in the late ’50′s when, as a refugee from Harvard and the good middle-class life, he roamed the country picking up songs and banjo techniques, performing in migrant camps, hobo jungles, saloons and churches, later in union halls and at political rallies. The riches are more recently come by; three years ago his annual income was estimated at a relatively minor $20,000, but today his manager says it is “reasonable” to conclude that he is in the six-figure bracket.

To suggest that a man may find such financial achievement more burden than blessing is admittedly to broach the improbable, but in the case of Pete Seeger, 46, the improbable seems likely. What he says at an interview, as well as what he only half-articulates or leaves unspoken, adds up to a completely convincing picture of a man who is most at home when working at hammering out songs of love between his brothers and his sisters, and who never expected the hammer to turn to gold in his hands.

Now it has, thanks to international tours, recordings for Columbia and especially to composers’ royalties, and no thanks at all to commercial television, which has mumbled for years about being “unable to program him in” and which has just this season allowed him to slip in through the back door of ultra high frequency and for a single appearance on CBS’s “Camera Three”. His regular program, which appears on Channel 47 Saturdays from 7 to 8 P.M., has been cited by critics as one of the gems of the local TV scene. It is entitled “Rainbow Quest”.

“Rainbow Quest” from a song he wrote. Sitting at a corner table in an unpretentious restaurant uptown, he tilted his head back slightly and talked the lines. “Oh had I golden thread, and needle so fine, I’d weave a magic strand of rainbow design… of rainbow design.”

“I don’t want to sound preachy about it”, he said – and he didn’t – “but it’s a searching out of all the kinds and colors of people there are – the different languages, religions, occupations. And maybe what it boils down to is that I’m trying to search out what chance there is for the survival of the human race. Sometimes I’m optimistic, sometimes not. Even at my most pessimistic, though, I feel it’s better to fight and lose than not to fight at all.”

Speaking of fighting, it has been ten years now since he refused to answer questions about his political beliefs put to him by a House UnAmerican Activities Subcommittee, citing the First Amendment, the freedom of speech and association clause, rather than the Fifth, which would have protected him from prosecution. (He was convicted for contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison, but the conviction was later reversed.) There are still those who consider Seeger a threat, others who hold him in great admiration and some who, while not questioning his patriotism, consider him to have been guilty of political naiveté.

In a way, all this ought to have nothing to do with his music; commenting on the ban that network television had imposed, one critic put it succinctly: “His credential for TV is his art, which is in order.” But in another sense, it has everything to do with it, since songs of social protest and civil liberties stand out in his repertoire. (He is largely responsible for the current version of “We Shall Overcome”.)

“Why do people think that music and songs should not be concerned with the events of the day?” he asked musingly, “In Trinidad, calypso songs are topical. In ancient Arabia, it was common for poets to comment on events, and when a poet was put on the court payroll, it was said that the poet’s tongue had been cut out. I’d be willing to bet that it’s only the last few generations which have been given the idea that a song should not be concerned with what is going on. Why do so many of these songs seem negative? Well, that comes down to a basic question about art, and I don’t have an easy answer. Why are most love songs about unrequited love?” He grinned suddenly, “I guess because if a love song is requited, a person has better things to do than sit around writing songs.”

Whatever else can be said of Pete Seeger, he surely knows how. His whole musical life has been a learning process, including a stint at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress; in his field he does research, edits, makes films and has written instruction manuals. Yet his program is neither scholarly nor souped-up; when he says, looking full into the camera, “If anybody knows this song, you’re welcome to sing along with me.” It is not professional, not peremptory, not even a planned bit of business. Though he insists he’s not good at drawing out the best in guests and has a lot to learn, his program has impressed many observers as setting a new standard for folk music on TV, because the real thing always makes the most sense.

He sets great store by the real thing. “I’m going to have people on my program who might never be invited to a folk festival because the way they work wouldn’t be effective on a large stage. The cameras can get in close and catch the twinkle in the old ballad singer’s eye or hands.”

But Seeger will not condemn less authentic folk varieties. “It’s a big world.” Big and complicated. It was simpler back in 1950, when he couldn’t afford to buy a house, so he built one of logs on a mountain in upstate Beacon. That he still lives there, with his wife and three children, may have something to do with his views on modern society and the success that has come to him.

“When I feel pessimistic, as I sometimes do, I feel like a man who loved to go out in the woods and track animals. He wanted other people to know what it was like, so he wrote a book about nature. It was a simple book, but it became a best-seller. . .and then there were organized tours. . . and LP’s of bird calls, and all the rest. And the man said, ‘But that isn’t what I v/as talking about at all.’”