Last year, when Peter Seeger died, I had plenty of other things to be sad about.
Pete died on my husband’s birthday, and his death didn’t cut into much of a celebration, given that Jim himself would be dead in a few weeks time. We were both a bit sad that Pete died, me especially, as I’ve always been a folky and have always been fond of Pete Seeger. (And, yes, I did see him live once, back in the 1960’s, in a combination concert and speech. He was great.)
Love or hate his politics, love or hate his music, he certainly appeared to live a life that wasn’t just long – he was 94 when he died – but that was full of purpose, modest, and consistent.
It’s absolutely impossible to imagine Pete Seeger doing an ad for Chrysler, or appearing at corporate functions for $250K, a la Bob Dylan.
So it was something of a surprise, and more than something of a shock, to hear Pete singing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” on an ad for Jackson Hewitt, a tax-prep company with many of its outlets in Walmart.
When I first heard it, I did say to myself, that couldn’t be Pete Seeger.
But Pete’s voice was so distinctive. And “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” was just his kind of tune.
No, I kept shaking my head, no, a thousand times no. Just couldn’t be.
And then I heard it for the second time, and went to the google.
That was Pete Seeger.
Once I googled, I found that the folky-sphere – the world of folks who don’t just like the music, but live and love the life – had exploded.
Pete would never have shilled. Pete would never have sold out. Pete would never have been associated with Walmart.
As it turns out, the rights to use the song had been sold to benefit Folkways Records, with the permission of Pete’s children. (Not clear whether they’re profiting. They sure don’t sound like greed-heads. They’re all folky-artsy-social action types, and his daughter has invited people who are concerned about the decision to write to her directly.)
With permission or not, it doesn’t seem like the sort of enterprise that Pete Seeger would want to be associated with.
He was way more of a cause kind of guy.
But if selling a song served a good cause – like supporting Folkways Records – he might not have been that outraged. Maybe he wouldn’t have done it himself; but maybe he wouldn’t have gone frothing ballistic about it either.
Remember, the motto inscribed on his banjo was ‘This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender.'
Still, I did feel a bit sad when I heard it.
At Jim’s memorial service in March, we had mostly Irish music. But we did have some Aaron Copland (from Appalachian Spring). And we did have ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple.” And, in honor and memory of Pete, we sang “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
Here’s a link to Pete performing it with Judy Collins, another one of my favorites.
To hell with Jackson Hewitt.
That’s how I’m going to remember Pete Seeger.