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Ticking the Little Boxes

January 28, 2014


Some heroes loom large, full sized posters on the bedroom walls of your life; others exist more subtly, to be uncovered during infrequent fumblings through half forgotten drawers, and attic boxes.

Pete Seeger, who died today, exists, for me, in the latter area. He was always there, a voice in the background, the reason for so much.

It’s a Saturday morning in the early sixties. I’m lying comfortably in bed, sun shining through the window, a whiff of breakfast from downstairs, and a whole, long, ten year old’s weekend ahead of me. Reaching out to my Dansette radio, I click the switch and hear the reassuring sound of “Uncle Mac” on “Children’s Favourites”.

Before the Pirate ships, there was only “The Light Programme” on the BBC. It was my sole intake of recorded music for the week, and its playlists remain clear a lifetime later.

Although some ‘Top Ten Hits” were played, largely the requests we heard were familiar favourites: “The Railway runs through the middle of the house” by Alma Cogan, “Sparky’s magic piano”, Danny Kaye and “The Ugly Duckling”, Michael Holliday’s “The Story of my life”, Stan Freeberg’s “Bannana Boat Song” and Pinky and Perky’s take on just about anything.

However, amongst this light entertainment confectionery, were some songs which were, clearly, too subtle for the BBC’s still Reithian censorship department.

The first was Pete Seeger singing “Little Boxes”. It’s a song which seems like it’s always been in my head. I remember asking my mother – what’s that about? And she explained it was about people living in houses which were all the same and could make their lives seem all the same.

It was an early understanding that songs could make a point about people and life as well as sounding good. It shaped how I thought about music. “Boxes” was written by Seeger’s friend, Malvina Reynolds, but, for me, as it is for millions, it’s Pete’s voice singing it which echoes down through the years.

There were other Saturday morning regulars: Trini Lopez singing “If I had a hammer”, “Where have all the flowers gone?” from The Kingston Trio. Both from Seeger. Songs to make you think about the world, to express anger, and hope, and solidarity. Seeger’s influence was there even when I didn’t realize it – and it would continue:

The Byrds singing “Turn Turn Turn”, “Guantanamera” for the Cuban people, numerous demonstrations singing “We shall Overcome”, appreciating and loving Woody Guthrie and Tom Paxton, my own guitar, my own songs, Springsteen, the understanding or belief that if music was not part of your life it was nothing, and vice versa.

All started with those “Little Boxes on the hillside, all made out of ticky tack”.

I never got to see Pete live – though decades later I had the privilege of seeing his half sister Peggy, with another songwriting political hero, Ewan MacColl, in the unlikely setting of Portobello Town Hall. When I listen to “Free World”, by another much loved singer, Ewan’s daughter, Kirsty, I hear the echoes of Seeger and what he started, popularized, and brought to greatness – the idea of the people’s music to change the world.

“I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.”

Rest easy, Pete, one day, we shall overcome.

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