Saturday, February 08, 2014

Pete Seeger (1919-2014), a middlebrow troubadour from a lost popular era (and mindset)

Not so long ago, Pete Seeger's pop-folk music was recognized for what it was: a part of the pop music spectrum, if arguably more arty than, say, Burl Ives, another troubadour who had much success on the pop charts.  To be sure, Pete was part of the art-folk tradition of John Jacob Niles and Jeanie Ritchie, but he was also Tonight Show-friendly, so we have the issue of where, exactly, to place him in the pop spectrum.

The problem, of course, is that in today's post-rock pop environment, "pop" (a.k.a. "popular") is fightin' words.  Blasphemy, even.  After all, "pop" is Lawrence Welk, Guy Lombardo, Pat Boone, Perry Como, The New Christy Minstrels, Bubblegum, Frankie Avalon, Ray Conniff, Peter Duchin, Lenny Dee, Mitch Miller, and so on, and who would place Pete in that camp?  In fact, "pop" is pretty much anyone one doesn't happen to like, anyone one wishes to consign to non-artist status.  Shit, in short.  Pete wasn't that, by any means.  So, how can I possibly insult him by applying such a gruesome, dehumanizing, and damning label as "pop"?

Well, because back in Pete's heyday, "pop" still meant something closer to "folk."  "Folk" enjoyed a pop culture connotation of the people's music.  (In fact, around the 1920s and 1930s, "folk" often MEANT "pop," and vice-versa.  This is the correct reading of "pop," after all--vernacular, common, of the people.)

Yes, once upon a time, and not too long ago, "people's music" was everything from polkas to spirituals to fiddle tunes to Stephen Foster to The Old Rugged Cross to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue to Broadway to Ellington to popular Tchaikovsky melodies.  Today, as noted before, "pop" means shit.  Biiiiiiiiiiiig worldview shift, no?  This creates a problem when trying to properly place the career and accomplishments of artists, like Pete, who were pop when "pop" meant (or, at least, was perceived to mean) something vastly different.

Pete, despite his art-folk roots, was an artist neither weird nor intellectually threatening to the middlebrow viewers of Johnny Carson--more personable, more real-guy, more down to earth than the (real or perceived) art-folk norm.  Someone you'd like to have over at your house to sing a 400-year-old ballad.  How many art-folk performers are Tonight Show- or invite-over-to-your-house-friendly?  I'm guessing not many.  Would someone like Pete have a place in today's pop music environment?  Would an artist like himself even make sense in that environment?  I'm guessing he wouldn't.  Certainly, not with the post-rock death of middlebrow.  And as a popular folk singer, Pete was Mr. Middlebrow.

Pete happens to have passed away in a pop era when "pop" denotes something only the squarest audience members (believers, Walmart shoppers, Barry Manilow fans, people from "flyover" states) would listen to.  In an era where "everyone" means a hip few, though the precise identity of that hip few depends on which hip few you ask.

Pete was one of our great popular artists.  And he lasted into an era that doesn't know "pop" from shit.  I imagine that much of the media praise upon the death of this great popularizer has come from writers to whom "popular" means something entirely un-Seeger.



Buster said...

I suspect his credibility among the "intelligentsia" comes as much from his political views than from his musical accomplishments (which were considerable). Also, he himself was a product of the intelligentsia.

Lee Hartsfeld said...

True, about his political involvement. But I'm not sure what you mean by "product of the intelligentsia." Because his Dad was a Harvard-trained musicologist? Yes, Pete had all kinds of connections to elite culture, but I see his primary appeal as an NPR/NYT/PBS appeal--i.e., middlebrow. For instance, my Republican (!) father loved Pete and regarded him as a great talent, whereas my quite liberal foster parents regarded him as more of a pop figure (compared to Leadbelly, Bukka White, field recordings of "Barbara Allen," etc.). And they were unimpressed by his musical chops, despite my insistence that he was quite good on a technical level. Two examples don't prove my point, of course, but Pete's Tonight Show-safe image and the outpouring of praise from the usual middlebrow sources--NPR, and so on--seem to support my view of Pete as some straddling the fence between the Kingston Trio and John Jacob Niles.

Just my two cents! Thanks for commenting.

Lee Hartsfeld said...

I meant, "as someONE straddling the fence between...."

Buster said...

I don't disagree that Seeger was a middlebrow success, but I do think he had some status among the elite as well.

Leadbelly may have been as much of a pop figure as Seeger - appearing in cabaret, making children's records, etc.