The news of the death of Pete Seeger was not surprising, but was sad nonetheless. since he was one of the first singers I ever became a fan of, though at first I never even knew his name.
When I was younger we lived on a smallholding at Sunningdale, just outside Johannesburg (the bit where we lived it has now been absorbed by the megalopolis, and has another name). Because it was outside the municipal area, there was no mains electricity or water, and so any music and records we played we heard on an old wind-up gramophone. My parents had about 10 records, and the only ones I can remember were Ravel’s Bolero on a 12″ 78 record, and two 10″ ones with songs — Rum and Coca-Cola by the Andrews Sisters, and Old Paint by The Weavers.
I used to ride horses a lot in those days, and when I was about 11 or 12 years old I used to ride around singing Old Paint because I knew it was about a horse, even though I didn’t understand some of the words, like coulees, draw and hoolihan. I didn’t know then that Pete Seeger was one of the Weavers, but ten years later I certainly did, when I was a student in the 1960s, and in a way his were the songs that shaped our generation.
My mother worked for SARRAL, the South African Recording Rights Association, which kept track of musicians’ royalties, and then she was headhunted by Teal Records, who wanted her to sort out their copyright department, which was a mess. They used to get all sorts of samples from overseas record distributers, and Teal would decide whether to import them, or, if they were likely to be popular, to press and distribute them locally.
My mother picked up quite a lot of these samples, especially the ones that weren’t distibuted in South Africa. Pete Seeger’s We shall overcome album was one that was not distributed, not because Teal thought it wouldn’t sell, but because the Publications Control Board immediately banned it. My mother nicked the sample copy and brought it home. By that time we lived in Johannesburg, had mains electricity, and so had upgraded our wind-up gramophone to an electric one that could play LPs.
And we played it so much that it almost wore out.
And thirty-five years years later, when our kids were about the same age as I was when I used to sing Old Paint they had most of the songs on the record word perfect, right down to the accent — “what was going on in Birmingham, with the daags….” and breaking into I ain’t scared of your jail ’cause I want my freedom, I want my freedom now.
Pete Seeger taught us to express our desire for freedom in song. May his memory be eternal!