Stories that feature ‘Pete Seeger’

My brief TV career (6)

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on September 30th, 2012 by Frank.  5 Comments

Our TV pilot was back in business. This was our last chance, so I tried to make sure that it would be reviewed well and that the sponsor would get the kind of attention sponsors want. I had friends at the Archdiocese of Chicago who were folk fans. I suggested to them that if they liked the show, they should write Sara Lee.
The priests came through with interest, and between the real excitement and the rigged excitement, Sara Lee was overwhelmed. The numbers were medium — not great, but good enough to feel enthusiastic about. Kaplan told us the company was getting all sorts of praise for being on the cutting edge.
Soon Sara Lee told us they were picking up their option for the network. ABC even ran a little teaser that the show was going to be on in May, as a pilot for a future series. Once again contracts were being drawn up.
Then, in a completely unrelated part of the television world, Jack Paar took a vacation from the Tonight Show. Sam Levinson, another big Weaver fan, was tagged to fill in. Levinson decided he wanted to put his old friends the Weavers on the Tonight Show.
Maybe it was hubris, or maybe Levinson was really telling the world it was time to put the blacklist to rest. Either way, the shit hit the fan. The Weavers never went on the show, and the dominoes began to fall. Suddenly, nobody from Sara Lee or the network would talk to us. Our show was never picked up. And that was the end of my television career.
A year or so later, ABC began to air a remarkably similar show called “Hootenanny.” By then the time was ripe, and it was a modest success, with a three-year run on the network.
Pete Seeger was the only singer the show’s backers would not contemplate. Pete decided that at this point getting people on the show would do more damage to the blacklist than a boycott would, and many artists deferred to his judgment and took the gig.
There was a big fight in the folk community over what to do about this. I had my doubts about the wisdom of Pete’s position, but I said nothing. I felt it was not for me to make that judgment. In the end, of course, he was right.

Pete breaks out

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on June 12th, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Not satisfied with losing my shirt on the Oranim Zabar dance group, I somehow got in touch with Pete Seeger’s manager. Pete was essentially an underground act by now. I told him I had put together enough money to reserve a weekend at Orchestra Hall, and would be Pete take a chance on playing. To my surprise, almost 7,500 people came out to see him in three nights. Here’s what Pete Seeger had to say when I asked him what it was like when he noticed things were starting to open up.

“Well, it happened slowly. It didn‘t happen overnight. I could see it slowly building. I would say that after the Korean War ended, every week things were just slightly better. The further the Korean War faded into the past, the less the red scare had people running.

“I’d done the preparatory work. I had sung at chiidren’s camps, and then I’d sung at private schools, and now I was going to colleges, as these kids from the summer camps and the private schools were getting me to sing at their colleges. At Oberlin in 53 I sang for about a hundred and fifty or two hundred people. In 54 I sang for seven or eight hundred people. In 55 I sang in their biggest auditorium, for about twelve hundred people. And by the end of the fifties I was even singing in the state colleges. lt’s the old case of finding a wedge, you know, and enlarging it. And finally I could sing in an auditorium like Orchestra Hall in Chicago, and these kids had graduated, and they brought their friends. And one thing led to another, and next thing you know we had a thing called the folk boom.

“I feIt good, needless to say, because I feIt like I was making at least halfway good music, even though I‘ve been aware that I never had much of a voice, but I could get a crowd singing along, which has been fundamental to what l‘ve been trying to do all my life. Because I’m very much my father‘s child. My father said, “Music listened to is not as important as music made.“ Some of the people that came to Orchestra Hall had been lefties at some time and now would be called left-liberals; I would call them potential democrats for a future society, people who could see the way the present system was not working. They were trying to see if there was some hope in a rather bad situation. Personally, they were not hungry; personally they were most of them well-housed, well-clothed, as well as well-fed, but they could see the world was in a bad way: the threat of the atom bomb, the threat of the Cold War, and the poverty of the Third World. And they could walk down the street in New York and see the inequalities in this country as well. And while I wasn’t offering any short-term solutions, I was pointing — I was saying, “The solution is somewhere in this direction, not in fascism.” Now, I was probably not as explicit as many people wish I had been, in one way or another, but I think that was purposeful. ln fact, I‘ve often laughed about this: almost all great songs are triumphs of oversimplification.”

Little Boxes

This story takes place in 1958. It was told on October 30th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

A few months after my debacle with the Israeli dancers, I had put together enough money to reserve a weekend at Orchestra Hall, where I intended to get back on my feet by doing a concert with Pete Seeger. To my surprise, almost 7,500 people came out to see him in three nights — an incredible turnout. Pete’s own manager was surprised. There was no reason for it, that he could see.

But folk music was booming. Nobody had suspected that the Kingston Trio’s doleful “Tom Dooley” would jump out the way it did. Of course, the Gateway Singers had broken that ground years before; why hadn’t they had the first big hit? But that was sour grapes. You couldn’t deny that the Kingston Trio had a sound that transferred better to vinyl. And there was the timing: a couple of years had made an enormous difference in what the public was ready to listen to.

What was happening, I think, was the end of the most extreme aspects of the cold war. The thaw had come to Chicago, and artists like Pete could openly play to broad audiences again.

The courts were beginning to issue some favorable decisions in cases against Communist Party members under the Smith Act, and Senator Joe McCarthy himself had been destroyed in the Army hearings. We watched the establishment reel McCarthy in almost overnight, as if a consensus had suddenly developed that he had to go, and the wheels of the establishment news machine did a job on him like he never expected. The witch hunt, by now, had fulfilled its purpose: isolate the radicals, destroy the Communist Party, bring the labor movement into the establishment and institutionalize it, and put strict limits on the range of acceptable dissent in America. McCarthyism had been so successful it was finally becoming counterproductive. Its effects lingered much longer, in various forms, but McCarthy as an individual was broken, and that had set in motion the intellectual and ideological destruction of the classical witch-hunt.

That glasnost-like trend was what Pete connected with when I first produced his concerts in Chicago. At first it was mainly the revolt of a section of the middle class that had been silenced, petrified by the witch hunt and the cold war, and repelled by the intellectual lethargy of the Eisenhower years.

Folk music also benefited from the emerging sympathy with the beginnings of the black liberation movement, which was then essentially integrationist. I thought Josh White’s work was much more authentic than the “contemporary” stuff. It was urban blues with a commercial tinge, while Pete’s material popularized the old white folk traditions.

Pete personified an integrity that people found attractive on every level. Of course, we leftists regarded him as our own troubadour (even if I thought I detected a certain political myopia in him at times), but many more people were happy to ignore the political aspect of his work; they were comfortable with the other things that he was talking about.

These people were wide open to Kennedy-style illusions about some amorphous “better world,” and they were deeply moved by songs like Malvina Reynolds’ “Little boxes made of ticky-tacky, little boxes all the same,” a put-down of tract housing. Like a lot of the “contemporary folk” material of the time, it seemed to me to have an elitist tone to it. Tract housing, after all, was the first and often the only housing people could afford.