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Jeff Sharlet on Pete Seeger

One of the challenges in expository writing is to communicate a great deal of information without bogging down. English Professor Jeff Sharlet — the object of this space’s admiration in an earlier post — shows how it’s done in a recent NYT obituary for singer/activist Peter Seeger (1919-2014). His first para:

Pete Seeger was not so much a singer as a song leader. He sang well enough and long enough — “as early as 1925,” he told the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, by which he meant since he was 6 — that his voice became a great, unique, American sound. To him, this was a sorrow. He didn’t want you to listen to his voice; he wanted you to hear your own, singing. His modesty wasn’t artistic; it was political. “This machine kills fascists,” his friend Woody Guthrie scrawled along the hips of his guitar. Seeger in kind wrote in a tidy script around his banjo: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” For both men, music was a weapon, though Seeger might have winced at the term. A tool, then: utilitarian, but its purpose nothing less than liberation, the deepest kind of pleasure.

Take a few moments to parse that paragraph (parse is so much nicer a term than dissect or, heaven forfend, deconstruct). Look at the unfussy words, the thoughtful phrases (“a great, unique, American sound”), the deft transitions, the sentences short and long, and the extensive personal and historical detail that Sharlet communicates in just 145 words. Sigh. I hope that Jeff is not too modest to discuss his own writing in his literary journalism classes at the College. A student’s intimacy with such wonderful thinking and style teaches by osmosis quite as well as by formal instruction.

The rest of the piece is every bit as good. Read it.

Pete Seeger.jpg

Addendum: As my father tells it, in the 1950’s when Pete Seeger was blacklisted in the U.S., one of our family friends, impresario Sam Gesser, used to bring him up to Montreal to give concerts. He’d stay at our home, and at times he’d hold your humble servant — then a baby — in his lap. On one memorable occasion Seeger paraded Pied Piper-style, singing and strumming his banjo, down our quiet street in Montreal West with all the neighborhood kids in tow.


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