Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Farewell the Troubador

If one measure of the quality of a work of art, or at least the kinds of art meant for performance, is its flexibility, its openness to adaptation, then Pete Seeger was a great artist indeed.

It's hard to imagine a setting for a song of protest, a folk anthem, less likely than this, nor a performer further from a bohemian coffeehouse than the great Marlene.  Yet in her own way she is utterly faithful to Seeger as the song's creator, and her version is as definitive as any folk great's.  It needs nothing but a shred of a voice (and, thanks to Mr. Bacharach, a killer string arrangement) and the great sincerity that someone who has seen the very worst to break your heart.

Pete Seeger is one of those people whose death, however, inevitable, seemed some kind of impossibility - he was a monument, a fixture of public life in his way.  He was a man of uncompromising political sentiments (although forthright in admitting his mistakes, a misplaced admiration for Stalin among them) and towering cultural achievements.  In my New York days, he was a presence at benefits and political rallies, a calm center of frenzied activism, and a living link to the roots of folk and the radical past, when all things seemed possible.  To get a sense of what we've lost, I can recommend nothing better than something as unlikely as a Gawker list; read the 94 Reasons Pete Seeger Matters, and mourn a little.  Gone to graveyards, every one...

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