When I met Pete Seeger at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, I was in awe for about five minutes. By then I was so comfortable talking with him I felt as if I were chatting with a long-time friend. His death on January 27th, at the age of 94, hits me in my old-folkie heart.
Controversy was swirling around the storytelling world at the time. Those who felt any folktale must be told with absolute fidelity to the tradition from which it came were pitted against those who considered folktales to be part of our human inheritance. The latter insisted because similar stories can be found in different versions around the world, they were fair game for adapting. I figured if anyone would have an opinion on that it would be a folk singer.
I had cut my musical teeth on the folk movement and had become irritated with people who grabbed a song out of the folk cannon, tweaked it, and then tried to keep anyone else from singing it. Scarborough Fair was one of those songs, a traditional British tune with so many variations only cheeky upstarts like Simon and Garfunkel would dare pretend they had done anything but adapt it. The Kingston Trio made their mark by doing the same thing. So did many others, and although I sang their songs with gusto, I was never willing to concede any of them had a right to claim full ownership. They had just come up with catchy variations, which is what artists have always done.
Seeger and I talked about the similarity between the folk process in music and in storytelling. He said his father, musicologist Charles Seeger, insisted all folk music was plagiarism. Anyone singing a folk song or telling a traditional story was borrowing from the past. The origin was lost in time. Each performance scratched a new mark on it.
Hearing of Seeger’s death, I went looking for the context of his father’s plagiarism remarks. The only thing I could find was an unattributed quote on Wikiquote. It may or may not be accurate, but it reflects what I remember Pete Seeger’s saying about his father’s thoughts on the subject:
Perhaps the Russians have done the right thing, after all, in abolishing copyright. It is well known that conscious and unconscious appropriation, borrowing, adapting, plagiarizing, and plain stealing are variously, and always have been, part and parcel of the process of artistic creation. The attempt to make sense out of copyright reaches its limit in folk song. For here is the illustration par excellence of the law of Plagiarism. The folk song is, by definition and, as far as we can tell, by reality, entirely a product of plagiarism.
The conversation with Pete Seeger still influences my stories and writing. It freed me from the idea that unless I could come up with something absolutely original, I had nothing to add to the great conversation all artists are participating in.
That is a liberating thought, and it makes sense. After all, we are made of stardust, released into the universe by exploding stars, only to be reformed into something never entirely brand new. It is hubris to think anything we come up with can ever be entirely original. What it can be is splendidly unique to our personal vision of life.
That was the gift Pete Seeger gave me at the National Storytelling Festival in the year 2000. It gave me hope then. It still does.
Farewell, Pete Seeger. No matter what injustices you saw around you, you never stopped believing that music could save the planet.
Take five minutes and watch this clip from an inspiring interview with Bill Moyers.
Pete Seeger’s music can be found on iTunes.
Here’s a wonderful documentary on Seeger:
Allan M. Winkler’s fine biography on Seeger: