Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger Lies In The American Land

Similar to when Richie Havens passed on last year and I suspended my week’s special in order to pay tribute to that great folk singer, I now pause my special on Sire Records to honor the memory of Pete Seeger – the quintessential American folk musician. Seeger passed away last night in New York City at the ripe old age of 94.

I’m not sure when I first became aware of Pete Seeger – perhaps it was during the folk craze of the early sixties, or maybe it was through other groups who recorded his well known compositions such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” “If I had a Hammer,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

Possibly, I learned his name when I was in the fourth grade and ordered the Scholastic Books’ “Folksong Festival Sampler” that included one of his recordings. Maybe it was because he popularized the song “We Shall Overcome,” a song the late Miss Gloria DiMartini had us sing in our fourth grade music class. Perhaps it was the sight of that extremely long necked, 25-fret Vega banjo he strummed. I don’t know, but it seems like I’ve always known him – always admired him.

Today, I’m not going to feature one of his better known songs, but rather a song that mentions my hometown – McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Seeger didn’t write “He Lies in the American Land,” but he did set Andrew Kovaly’s poem to music and recorded it on his 1956 “American Industrial Ballads” LP.

Kovaly, a Slovak immigrant to McKeesport, witnessed the death of his friend in the mill and wrote this ballad to break the bad news to his widow when she arrived from Austria-Hungary. The millwright’s wife and children had already set out on their journey when the tragedy occurred. Perhaps it’s the only song to mention McKeesport, as Kovaly lamented “Here in McKeesport, this valley, this valley of fire.”

Seeger took this song to a broader audience. Accompanied only by his unwieldy banjo, his sparse interpretation of Kovaly’s lyrics gives the song an Eastern European flavor.

Pete Seeger influenced a generation of singers who influenced another generation of singers who still influence others yet today. Thanks for bringing us many great songs – songs that will live on forever.

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