Pete Seeger and his mighty backstage fire-ax: A legend for all time (and all media)

Pete plucking his banjo, by the Hudson River
Pete plucking his banjo, by the Hudson River

The myth persists, although the facts have pretty much been determined. Pete Seeger, the banjo-flicking entertainer who cultivated a reputation for loving peace, did not swing a fire-ax through an electrical cable in a failed effort to prevent some upstarts, Bob Dylan and the Hawks, from amplifying their 1965 performance at the Newport (R.I.) folk music festival.

Though the tale was discredited, its many versions persist. Eventually the story attained the status of legend — which, when you get down to it, is why they call this stuff folklore. Or, if there’s a banjo involved, folk music. The incident thrives in the pop culture consciousness, and earlier this week was prominently raised one more time in Seeger’s long obituary in the New York Times.

The cable-spitting caper may never have happened, but everyone wishes it had. That’s because it calls to mind so much more than just one man, one ax, one trope: I’m on it, like Seeger choppin’ a cable.

And now Seeger is gone. So, why do you suppose the world refuses to let go of his alleged ax-swing?

Possibly it’s because the tableau of the older man feverishly attempting to bestill the younger man is a darned powerful analogy. This theme is not restricted to the obviousisms of Genesis 22:1-14, but if you like the religious angle (and remember, please, that to everything there is a season), you might try seeing it this way: Here is the established folksinger as high priest of his order and principal enforcer of its sacred traditions, determined to halt the cult’s desecration — by its chosen inheritor, no less. That’s a lot of Old Testamenty stuff piled into one couplet.

Statue of large bearded man about to bring down his ax over a cable in Tucson, Ariz.
Statue of large bearded man about to bring down his ax over a cable in Tucson, Ariz.

If you prefer your metaphoric plot-lines to be a bit more secular and cinematic, Seeger’s mythic act of destruction against a piece of 20-gauge wire could be viewed as an out-of-character, but inevitable, response by a decent man driven to extremes by a single unforgivable act of betrayal. Myself, I’m drawn to the economic symbolism, and choose to interpret the ax-wielding Seeger as a Luddite zealot determined to stop progress by shattering the means of production, using the tool at hand, which happens to be a crude instrument held over from the age of the settlers. “Looky, ma, yonder comes Paul Bunyan. No, wait; it’s only that minstrel feller, and what’s that he’s screaming? ‘Smite yon cable, and declare that tomorrow will not come.'”

Click here to listen to Pete and the Almanac Singers

Pete Seeger’s ax certainly would have come in handy every nine minutes or so during Sunday night’s 56th annual presentation of the Grammy Awards. The record of the year and album of the year were created by Daft Punk, two musical Frenchmen who perform techno-pop while wearing Robocop costumes. That would be a pretty good five-word joke the first time you hear it, but the yuks are temporary. The faceless, wordless Punks employ the universal language of ridicule, by mocking what their audiences have become through society’s embrace of 21st Century corporatism and technology. The Punks’ fans must surely know they’re central to the gag, but somehow it doesn’t add much to the laughs to think about that — or about how Giorgio Moroder, Marcel Marceau and Insane Clown Posse ought to launch a class action suit against the robots, over being cheated out of their deserved royalties.

Daft Punk, performing at 2014 Grammy Awards
Daft Punk, performing at 2014 Grammy Awards

Seeger, who was nominated for a Grammy this year (and lost in his category to funnyman Stephen Colbert), surely would not have dug the concept of musicians hiding their faces, and pretending to be machines — or farm animals, or Aztec deities, or anything else they are not. He wrecked his career by telling the House Un-American Activities Committee to piss off — although he did it with the tact and eloquence to be expected of the urbane Harvard man that he was. He turned down sponsorship deals offered by cigarette-makers, because he didn’t like tobacco. He argued with TV network executives who wanted to rehabilitate, and turn a buck from, his radical image. He was feisty and mulish, a U.S. Army vet and registered Commie who was never less alone than when he failed to understand what manner of mischief Dylan was up to, back in ’65.

The thing is, though, unlike the procession of Robo DJs, pretend Tinkerbells, lumberjack imitators, and bra-model manques on display through the 2014 Grammys, it seemed never to occur to Seeger during his lifetime that he might present himself as a product, as opposed to a person. Perhaps for that reason, people such as Seeger — which is to say, human entities — were kept well out of sight for the length of the Grammy evening.

This year, Seeger was nominated for a spoken word recording. I can’t guess how many copies of spoken-word recordings were downloaded from iTunes or streamed on Spotify last year. Gotta be at least one, you’d hope.

The old categories of Folk and Folk-Rock have been subsumed into the crumbling Rubbermaid bin called American Roots, which includes Blues, Bluegrass, and good old Americana (summed up, no doubt, by Chuck Berry’s lyric about hamburgers sizzling on an open griddle night and day.) It seems significant that T Bone Burnett’s soundtrack album from the movie Inside Llewyn Davis didn’t even earn a nomination under one of these nearly invisible Who-Gives-a-Shit categories.

The film is a scuffed-up valentine to the Greenwich Village coffee-house scene of the earliest 1960s. It depicts various troubadours inspired by Seeger’s Almanac Singers and Weavers, leading singalongs of public-domain ballads, hollers, rags, and shanties. It was a time when folksingers slept on couches and seemed happy to perform for beer money or the tiniest bit of attention. The most striking scene in the film occurs a moment before the ending, when a distinctive silhouette appears for the first time: Bob Dylan, of course, beginning on his long trek to the Newport Folk Festival, where he might or might not have enraged the mighty progenitor, Pete Seeger. At the movie’s conclusion, you look inside Llewyn Davis and clearly read his thoughts. If he had a hammer, Llewyn most likely would have used it to smash Dylan’s fingers to pulp, but that honest instinct turns out to be neither here nor there.

As long as the Grammy brain-trust has their way, there will be no more hootenannies. Not when they’ve got their audiences trained to pay electronically for the right to stand and sway numbly and passively to a synthesized rhythm. The last thing in the world the music industry wants right now is to hand any credit back to the do-it-yourself recidivists, those angry cheapskates who will disrupt your mood by insisting that you’re supposed to make your own music, find your way. As if anybody ever got anywhere with that kind of attitude.

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