The folk singer and activist Pete Seeger died aged 94 this week. Here, Bombay Bicycle Club guitarist Jamie MacColl pays tribute to his great-uncle and the influence he had on the world.
When I heard about Pete’s death on Tuesday morning I couldn’t help but recall my first meeting with him as a 10-year-old. My grandmother Peggy Seeger used to take her various grandchildren on roads trips around the East Coast of the US in her ramshackle VW camper van. Speaking to my cousins and brother it seems that all of these trips included a pilgrimage to Pete’s house in upstate New York near the banks of the Hudson River. It was there that he and I first met properly, our arrival greeted by this man who seemed unbelievably tall, a literal giant as well as a metaphorical one. We spent a few days there and actually slept in the log cabin that Pete had famously built with his own hands in 1949. It’s rare that you meet someone surrounded by those kinds of stories who actually turn out to be authentic – the real deal. Pete was truly one of those people.
The public’s reaction to his death has really underlined what a signficant political activist he was. I often get asked questions about the significance of protest music: whether it is effective and if it’s something that my own band takes in an interest in. What’s interesting about Pete is that he came from the same middle-class background as I do, but felt fully able to try and make a difference without feeling too self-conscious or disingenuous. And he did make a difference – as long as inequality remained he would be out fighting it. It’s a shame that we don’t have more songwriters like Pete now, politically motivated and drawn to oppose the increasing divide between rich and poor that blights the world.
In light of that it is easy to forget Pete’s importance and influence as a musician. When it came to our acoustic album, ‘Flaws’, I wasn’t sure where to begin with learning how to fingerpick so I turned to one of Pete’s instructional recordings. I’m sure I’m just one of many musicians who have learnt to play guitar and banjo this way. Funnily enough I do actually remember Pete encouraging me to try the banjo when I met him on that first trip but I didn’t have much interest in it back then. I like to think that Pete and my grandfather Ewan MacColl would have enjoyed our music but I imagine their reaction might be closer to Peggy’s, complaining about not being able to hear the lyrics!
Reading about him it becomes apparent what a divisive figure Pete was and indeed still is. While I can’t say I agree with all his politics, no one can deny that he was a great man who lived a full and very special life. He will be greatly missed.