|Pete Seeger in his prime. He died Monday at the age of 94.|
They were nearly a generation apart, Seeger born in 1919, Van Ronk in 1935, and many folkies in Van Ronk's circle viewed Seeger as a fossil. In the late 1950s Van Ronk began contributing to the local newspapers of the folk revival, first using the pseudonym "Blind Rafferty." In the hope of blowing Blind Rafferty into "a really fine rage," a friend gave him a column by Seeger in Sing Out! Van Ronk didn't like the column, but his column in Caravan set this disagreement aside and addressed Seeger's place in folk music. The heart of Van Ronk's column provided a rare glimpse, from a fine performer and close observer, of Seeger in his prime.
Here is what Blind Rafferty had to say:
"I think that the man is really great, in almost every sense of the word, and it saddens me to constantly find myself in the opposition camp every time he ventures an opinion. But when he sings --
"Artists of Seeger's genre are hard to come by in this day and age. He is, in my opinion, taste and honesty personified, and a Seeger concert is a lesson which no singer of folksongs can afford to miss. When he speaks on the stage, his voice rarely raises above a conversational level, and yet he is heard. As a matter of fact, 'stage presence' of the Broadway variety is entirely absent. Seeger doesn't act; he is.
"I think that this is the key to his entire greatness. The man has no need to act in order to establish contact with his audience. He genuinely respects the people who are listening to him and refuses to insult their sensibilities with insincere theatrics. And they respond, not to an an actor or stage personality, but to the man.
"He treats his material in much the same way. I doubt if Seeger considers himself a 'folklorist' per se; but rather he looks at folk music as a human being, subject to love, hate, enthusiasm, sorrow -- in short, all of the emotions with which folk music deals. He is not 'preserving' folklore but living it, and so are we, and he knows it. He neither sings up nor down to his material but with it. And there is no dichotomy between the performer and the content of his songs. This is the reason why one never gets the 'isn't this cute' or 'how quaint" impression from Seeger's singing. When he sings, all of him is involved. Which is another lesson that many singers of folksongs could profit by.
"Again, I can't say I think much of Pete's point of view on many subjects. He is forever espousing causes which at best leave me cold. But I can't say that I think he would be better off without his causes and opinions. However wrong I happen to think they may be, they reflect a genuine concern with the real world which, to my way of thinking, is an indispensable part of a whole person, which I think Pete Seeger is.
"The tragedy is that there are almost none like him. He is almost unique and insofar as such people in folk music are rare, then it becomes necessary to form 'societies for the preservation of folklore' -- or perhaps the word should be 'embalming.'