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"This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender."

Pete Seeger's father taught music at Berkeley, but was squeezed out during World War I, when the family's pacifism made him extremely unpopular. Mr and Mrs Seeger were later on the faculty at the Julliard School of Music, but they taught classical music, which never much interested little Petey.

In his teens, Seeger discovered folk music, and took up the banjo, ukulele, and guitar. He went to Harvard, expecting to become a reporter, but dropped out after two years. Then he worked at the Archives of American Folk Music at the Library of Congress, cataloging old recordings and interviewing old performers.

Seeger met Woody Guthrie in 1940, when they both performed at a "Grapes of Wrath" benefit for migrant farm workers. They shared similar musical and political tastes, became best buddies, and formed a folk group called the Almanac Singers.

They performed for the denizens of shantytowns, earning little or no money singing anti-authoritarian folk songs. Guthrie famouslu had a slogan scripted on his guitar —"This machine kills fascists" — but Seeger was always a pacifist. On his banjo was written, "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender."

The Almanac Singers recorded songs about politically touchy topics like workers' rights, social justice, and peace as preferable to war, but the group faded away when Seeger was drafted in 1942.

He spent his tour of duty singing folk songs for soldiers on the front, often songs that included anti-war sentiments. After his discharge, Seeger co-founded Sing Out!, the magazine still considered the definitive journal of folk music.

In 1947, Seeger formed a new band called the Weavers, with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. They had minor hits with recordings of a Jewish folksong "Tzena Tzena Tzena," and Huddie Ledbetter (aka Leadbelly)'s "Goodnight Irene." They also hit the charts with "Wimoweh," better known now as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." (We'll get to the "Wimoweh" controversy in a moment.)

In 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He was famously uncooperative, citing the First Amendment (freedom of speech and association) instead of the Fifth (freedom from self-incrimination) when he refused to answer, because he believed there was nothing incriminating about knowing communists or being one.

Nowadays, we look at people who refused to name names as heroes, but almost nobody thought so at the time. Clubs and TV shows canceled the Weavers' bookings, their recording company voided their contract, and their records vanished from stores and radio airplay.

Seeger was indicted for contempt of Congress, and sentenced to ten concurrent one-year terms in prison — a sentence he didn't serve, as it was overturned on appeal. Blacklisted, for years he worked only in tiny clubs willing to take the risk of hiring him.

"I still call myself a communist," Seeger once said, "because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.

Seeger's biggest hit was a 1964 recording of "Little Boxes," which brought him to larger venues through the 1960s. He was booked to appear on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, and performed his anti-Vietnam war song "Waist Deep In the Big Muddy," but the network, CBS, had his song cut.

After a minor uproar about it, Seeger was invited back for another performance of the song, which actually aired, on one of the show's last episodes before being canceled despite high ratings, and replaced with Hee Haw.

Seeger also popularized "We Shall Overcome," singing it for Martin Luther King in a gathering at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. King was heard humming the song later that evening, and said, "There's something about that song that haunts you."

Of course, it became the anthem of the civil rights movement, and is still heard wherever people march for justice.

After King's assassination, Seeger became even more involved in activism, but within a few years he seemed to grow weary of it all. While continuing to perform benefits for all the usual causes, his focus as an activist gradually shifted to environmentalism, and in his latter decades he worked to draw attention to water pollution. Seeger continued performing regularly with his grandson, folk singer Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, until his death in 2014.

As for "Wimoweh," it was written by African singer Solomon Linda, and recorded by Linda's band, the Evening Birds, in 1939. Seeger came upon a scratchy recording of the song in 1951, transcribed the lyrics ("Wimoweh" was Seeger's misunderstanding of the Zulu word uyimbube, meaning lion), and it became one of the Weavers' most popular tunes.

The song has since been recorded by everyone from Jimmy Dorsey to Yma Sumac, Glen Campbell to They Might Be Giants, and became a huge hit twice, for The Tokens and The Kingston Trio, before Disney's The Lion King made it an even bigger hit in the 1990s. The song's odyssey, however, always nagged at Seeger.

"Wimoweh" had emerged from South Africa before Apartheid was the law, but blacks were discriminated against long before it was required. A tiny studio paid Linda, the songwriter, about ten shillings out of petty cash, for complete ownership of the music and lyrics, in perpetuity.

By the mid-1990s, recordings of "Wimoweh" were estimated to have generated about $72-million. Out of that, Linda got only the original ten shillings, and he died in poverty in 1962.

Seeger thought "Wimoweh" had been an African folk song, and always said he was oblivious to the song's history. When the copyright situation came to light, he wrote Linda's estate a personal check to cover royalties owed, by his own calculations.

The Disney Corporation's response was somewhat different. A lawsuit filed by Linda's family has been winding through American courts for years, seeking royalties for Disney's use of the song in The Lion King. Disney's many lawyers maintain that all rights to the song were obtained legally, through a chain of purchases dating back to the ten shillings the songwriter received.

In a 2005 press release, Disney explained, "The estate's effort to cancel [the song's] assignment by waging a lawsuit and publicity campaign against Disney is both inappropriate and misdirected."

5/23/2023   

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