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Sing Along with Memory's Music

So. One of the things that happens when a musician/songwriter/singer/instrumentalist dies is that people call up, listen to and share some recordings that are particularly meaningful to them. It’s our internetty age’s response to what radio stations used to do—what radio stations still do, I suppose. There are still radio stations, aren’t there? Anyway, it’s far more interesting in the social media world to see what particular tracks our friends like, and how they think of them.

I was thinking about this—when Lou Reed died, people largely passed along Lou Reed’s own recordings of his songs. Mostly studio stuff, too. Lou Reed is clearly associated in people’s minds with those records (I’m calling them records, because old) rather than with his covers of other people’s songs, or other people’s covers of his songs. And that’s quite right, too. There are terrific covers, but that’s not what Lou Reed is to people.

On the other hand, there are songwriters who are loved in other people’s recordings of their songs. No, I don’t mean Bob Dylan, although of course most of you said Bob Dylan just now. I mean Johnny Mercer, or Lieber and Stoller, or Holly Knight or J.D. Souther. Even Leon Russell—I mean, maybe when Leon Russell dies, people will share something he recorded, but just as likely they will post Delta Lady or Masquerade, and quite rightly, too. And what about Leonard Cohen? Will everyone just post their own favorite cover of “Hallelujah”? Or will the pretentious amongst us post covers of “Everybody Knows” and “Bird on a Wire” and “Suzanne”?

And then there are some musicians who, while they are songwriters, are associated with other people’s songs as strongly as with their own. I’m thinking here of Eric Clapton—will I share Layla or will I share Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out? Or maybe Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright? Or perhaps Five Long Years? And speaking of “Bird on a Wire”, I would put Johnny Cash in a similar category, myself.

You knew I was leading up to talking about Pete Seeger, right?

So here’s the thing. I don’t like Pete Seeger’s voice very much, and I don’t like the banjo as an instrument very much, and frankly I don’t really enjoy any of the Pete Seeger recordings. Nor, honestly, am I a huge fan of the man’s songwriting. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a huge fan of the man, of his life and his work and his organizing and all of it. A great American, a hero. Absolutely. And I recognize that for many people Pete Seeger’s voice and banjo are the sound of music. But here’s the thing: if I am sharing a recording to commemorate Pete Seeger, I’m likely to pick this recording of Bruce Springsteen and a terrific band doing “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep”. Which Pete Seeger didn’t write, and on which he does not perform. But this recording exists because of Pete Seeger. Without Pete Seeger in the middle there, you don’t have this.

That one’s obvious, because the album is called The Seeger Sessions and the band is the Seeger Sessions Band. But what about Joan Baez singing “Whe Shall Overcome” at the White House? That doesn’t happen without Pete Seeger teaching the song in the forties to Guy Carawan, who taught it to SNCC. Not just politics, either, or not just directly politics—the Sandpipers don’t record Guantanamera if Pete Seeger hadn’t been singing it (as a peace song during the Cuban Missile Crisis, evidently, so politics is always there), and if the Sandpipers don’t have a hit with it, you don’t have Los Lobos recording a much better version, and you don’t have Wyclef Jean doing his thing with it. There are dozens—probably hundreds—of great recordings by great artists of great songs that Pete Seeger learned and taught. Pete Seeger didn’t write them, and frankly I could do without his recordings of them, but without Pete Seeger in the middle, you don’t have anything from Elvis Costello singing Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes” to the thing that They Might Be Giants did with Solomon Linda’s “Wimoweh” (Guitar), or for that matter what the Violent Femmes did with Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons” (Special).

And that’s not including his influence on songwriters, or his direct support for various songwriters and musicians, or his inspiration to others, or his cultural influence on what kinds of songs were acceptable to cover, or even the result of his organization and activism—there’s no way to identify the great recordings that exist because somebody could afford piano lessons for his kid because of a union job or a segregated workplace, achieved to the sound of Pete Seeger’s singing. That’s the man’s real legacy, of course, the true People’s Songbook. But just looking at him as a figure in the world of music, he is in the middle of a lot of songs and singers, filling a place that I don’t think I really ever realized existed.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,