Pete Seeger and Calypso for the 99 Percent
Posted by Michael Eldridge on January 28, 2014
There will be gallons—oceans—of ink spilled on Pete Seeger today, justifiably so, and I’ve got nothing of real substance to add. But it’s worth remembering, incidentally, how much Seeger and “People’s Songs” influenced the way Americans thought of calypso. At a time when campy covers of “Rum and Coca-Cola” and “Stone Cold Dead in the Market” topped the charts, Seeger promoted calypso not as pop music but people’s music. As he saw it, calypsonians weren’t purveyers of commercial ditties; they were tribunes of the folk who spoke truth to power and gave voice to the grievances of the downtrodden. (Calypsonians themselves weren’t so sure it had to be an either-or proposition, but that’s a story for another day.)
People’s Songs and its successor People’s Artists featured calypso not just at the famous 1946 “Calypso at/after Midnight” concert at New York’s Town Hall, but also at their long-running “Hootenannies,” where Sir Lancelot, the Duke of Iron, Lord Invader, and Lord Burgess (Irving Burgie) are all known to have performed throughout the 1940s and 50s.
If there was one calypso that truly passed into the consciousness of the Folk Song movement, it was Lord Pretender’s 1943 anti-racist anthem “God Made Us All,” which Invader brought with him when he came to New York in 1945 to sue for copyright infringement over “Rum and Coca-Cola.” As Seeger tells it, Invader once showed up unannounced at a “hoot” and wandered backstage to ask how he could help. Drafted to sing at the next event, he performed Pretender’s song, which was so well received that its lyrics were printed in the next issue of the People’s Songs newsletter.1 Lead Belly soon recorded the tune with additional lyrics of his own, although the track wasn’t issued until decades later, and Seeger himself accompanied Invader (on banjo) in a performance recorded at that May 1946 Hootenanny. (On a related note: Andrew Martin recounts Seeger’s advocacy for pan in the U.S., beginning in the 1950s, in “Words of Steel: Pete Seeger and the U.S. Navy Steel Band.)2
Of the thousands of folk songs that Seeger sang and composed throughout his long life, one of his favorites was friend and fellow traveller Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” For most Americans, calypsonians and the music they made were exotic novelties. For Pete Seeger, “this land” belonged to them, too.
 See People’s Songs 1.6 (July 1946): 6.
 The Lead Belly cover appears on the CD Lead Belly’s Last Sessions (Smithsonian-Folkways 40068/71, 1994). (On the Smithsonian Folkways website, by the way, Jeff Place writes one of the best tributes to Seeger that I’ve yet read.) Much of the preceding paragraph is adapted from the forthcoming Bear Family Calypso Craze box set, compiled and annotated by Ray Funk and Michael Eldridge. On the “Limers” discussion list after this post was first published, Funk mentioned a video clip in his possession of Seeger performing Tiger’s “Money Is King.” Not surprising, perhaps, given Seeger’s lifelong leftism (make that “small ‘c’ communism“); even near the end of his life, he marched in solidarity with 2011’s “Occupy” movement.