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SEEGER AND THE STEELBAND BY RAFFIQUE SHAH

posted 4 Feb 2014, 19:12 by Gerry Kangalee
Panman’ Pete passes on

....iconic American singer promoted pan in the 1950s 

  
Last Monday, legendary singer Pete (Peter) Seeger died in New York at age 94.

“Pete who?” most people might ask. I must confess that I too knew little about Seeger up to a decade or so ago, except that he was an American singer who had composed (or co-written) two songs I had loved as a teenager: Where Have All The Flowers Gone and If I Had a Hammer.

I’d soon learn, though, that not only was Seeger a musical genius and a crusader for the downtrodden, but he had developed a deep interest in pan music, which he promoted in the USA in the 1950s.

I came to better know and appreciate this iconic artiste and activist when I researched the music that inspired my generation in the 1960s and 1970s. The songs mentioned above, and others such as We Shall Overcome, Blowin’ In the Wind, Give Peace a Chance and Imagine, were not just music for the ears, but sing-along anthems of peace and justice that young protestors across the world chanted as they fought for racial equality, civil rights and against war.

Seeger’s name cropped up as a prolific composer/singer, someone who had marched alongside Martin Luther King Jnr, who had inspired other great singers—Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen. More fascinating for me was Pete’s love story with Trinidad and Tobago’s national instrument, the steelpan. I sought to learn more about this legend who was born in 1919 and took part in the Occupy Wall Street protest in 2012, at age 92!

I shall not dwell into his 70-odd years, a lifetime, really, as a singer/musician—he hated the term ‘folk singer’. When the Kingston Trio’s rendition of “Flowers” became a monster hit in 1962, none of us in Trinidad who sang along knew that Seeger had composed and sung this haunting life-is-a-cycle ballad long before its reincarnation.

The same applied to “The Hammer Song”, popularised here by Trini Lopez in 1963, which Seeger had composed and sung as far back as in 1949. The hook lines from this song spell out Pete’s clarion call: “It’s the hammer of justice/It’s the bell of freedom...”

One explanation for Seeger’s obscurity, for other artistes riding the charts with his songs, was his politics. He was radical at a time when it was dangerous even to be black in the USA, far worse a leftist. He was ostracised and persecuted. Mainstream television and radio stations banned his voice, which was why we didn’t know him as a singer even as his songs scored big.

However, they failed to break his spirit. With banjo in hand and limitless talent embedded in his soul, Pete prevailed. He survived Senator McCarthy’s inquisitional witch hunt of the 1950s, was part of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the anti-Vietnam War crusade in the 1970s, the environmental lobby from its birth, and more.

His love for steelpan music intrigued me. Ray Funk might know much more about this side of Seeger’s life. From what I have read, he first encountered pan in New York, no doubt played by migrant Trinidadians. According to Andrew Martin (Voices, Volume 34, 2008), “Although the exact point at which Seeger first encountered steel drums is not known, we do know that his interest probably began in earnest during the winter of 1955, when Seeger started regularly performing on a steel drum as part of his folk instrumental repertoire. 
 
  “...In January 1956, Seeger and his wife Toshi travelled to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and made the sixteen-minute film Music from Oil Drums, featuring Kim Loy Wong and the Highlanders Steel Orchestra. The film, released by
Folkways Records in 1956, captures the entire process of making a steel drum over the course of one week...” 


I viewed a video of that film only last week for the first time, thanks to the website When Steel Talks. It shows a young Seeger interacting with even younger members of Highlanders in Laventille. He captured the tuning process,
features the band playing, and he takes back with him five pans he bought. Loy Wong expresses his desire to go America to tune and play pan music. 

Seeger was so captivated by pan music and its possibilities, he preached the gospel of this new genre as he criss-crossed America performing and lecturing. In 1959, he arranged for Loy Wong to migrate to New York where he helped Wong establish a steelband ensemble and a tuning centre. He produced a record featuring Wong’s ‘Oil Drums Ensemble’ and an accompanying instructional manual on tuning and playing pan. 
  
 Seeger’s romance with pan music would lead him into a most unlikely alliance. Admiral Daniel Gallery of the US Navy, stationed in Puerto Rico, had formed a naval steelband. According to writer Andrew Martin, Gallery claimed he had visited Trinidad during Carnival 1957 and was captivated by steelband music. He ordered a full set of pans (possibly from Ellie Mannette (with whom he collaborated) and that was the genesis of the Navy Steelband. 

(I recall reading another account that spoke of that steelband having its genesis in the American occupation of naval and air force bases in Trinidad during the Second World War.) 

Whatever its origin, Seeger the radical heard of Gallery’s band and wrote the Admiral a letter, sending with it a copy of his instructional manual. The Admiral knew who Seeger was, meaning his leftist politics, so he was very guarded in his response. However, soon, the two pan devotees would find that their love for the instrument transcended politics, and both would continue to promote the instrument and calypso music. The Navy Steelband became a showpiece for Gallery, playing for presidents and the public, even touring Europe. 

Seeger’s near-obsession with pan spanned the 1950s, and presumably the 1960s. There is no mention of what happened afterwards, on whether he continued to use pan in his music, or the fate of Loy Wong. What is known is Seeger’s songs for justice fuelled the global generational upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, including the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. His soulful re-make of We Shall Overcome became its anthem. 

It was during that period that songs of freedom and for justice infected an entire generation, across race and class lines. His ostracism during his best years, when his music was most popular, meant he was denied formal recognition by way of awards. 

It was not until 1994 that he was awarded the Presidential Medal of the Arts and the prestigious Kennedy Centre Award. In 1996 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he finally won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album for Pete in 1997. He accompanied Bruce Springsteen at one of the concerts for President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009.
 
There was a gala at Madison Square Garden for Seeger’s 90th birthday at which a huge audience and a galaxy of stars honoured this icon. In a moving tribute, no doubt referring to the powers-that-were that persecuted Seeger for much of his life, Springsteen said, “Pete, you’ve outlived the bastards, man!” 

And so he did, until the curtain call last Monday. He was a legend in his lifetime. He was also the first mainstream artiste to promote pan in America. Thanks, Pete.
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