Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger: He Never Quit Singing

One of my greatest heroes, Pete Seeger, died yesterday. He was 94 and had devoted his whole life to the causes of peace and justice for everyone.

In 2011 during the Occupy Wall Street movement, Pete Seeger went to Manhattan and marched two miles with the protesters even though he was using two canes to get around. Some celebrities who showed up were booed for their hypocrisy; rich folk jumping on a middle class bandwagon. But not Pete Seeger. Everyone knew he was doing what he had done for 70 some years: supporting the ordinary person wherever they may be, lending his voice to their chorus.

When Pete Seeger died yesterday at the age of 94, we didn't lose his voice - it's on hundreds of records and videos - or his words which are in numerous works. What we lost was his presence, his street cred, as it were.

A man whose activism reached back to the truly dark days of the Depression and his association with Woody Guthrie, through the 1950's and The Weavers (the original folk super group), who was later run off TV and radio by McCarthyism and the Blacklist, through the Civil Rights Movement and the 60's folk revival largely inspired by Pete and Woody, through protests of the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Along the way, he devoted considerable attention to environmental issues, especially the cleaning up of the Hudson River. That is what Pete Seeger brought to Occupy Wall Street.

When Pete Seeger was blacklisted in the 50's and the 60's, when he couldn't appear on TV or radio or in major concert venues, he went on college campuses to perform. It was those college student who would lead the folk revival of the 60's, which influences our pop music to this day.

Pete Seeger also gave a voice to the civil rights movement by popularizing the melody that became its anthem: We Shall Overcome. He said his main contribution to the lyrics was changing "will" to "shall" because it was easier to sing. Sometimes that's all it takes.

Growing up in the 60's and 70's, I didn't know all this, but I knew Pete Seeger. I knew it through a small book of folk songs for kids that I bought in the 5th grade in which Pete wrote entertaining commentaries for each song. And I knew him through groups like Peter, Paul and Mary who took up that torch. Incidentally, many of the great folk singers of the 60's refused to appear on shows like Hootenanny because Pete Seeger was blacklisted from the show. When he finally did appear on The Smothers Brothers Show, the networks cut the song protesting the Vietnam War.

Protests forced the network to let him return to perform the song, but some of the affiliates cut it from the broadcast.

Pete always got the audience to sing along. He felt a song was better if everyone joined in because it was never about him, it was about the music and the messages it conveyed.

It's often said that the best revenge is to outlive your critics. Pete Seeger did that. And he did it without changing the message of his music, that we should look out for each other and get along. When he received the Kennedy Center Honor, President Clinton called him "an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them."

 Perhaps the best example of this was at President Obama's Inaugural concert in 2009. It took place in the shadow of another time of economic devastation. Pete was appearing with Bruce Springsteen, who had recorded an album entirely of Seeger's music. Pete told Bruce he wanted to do This Land Is Your Land and he wanted to do all the lyrics, not just the happy ones about the beauty of this country, the ones that are in all the song books,
but also all the verses about the dispossessed, to whom the country also belongs. Of course he asked everyone else to sing along. And watching at home I remember thinking "Well Pete, you outlasted them all."

Heroes to me are defined not by the single moment that brought them their fame, but by how they use that fame for the whole of their lives.  Pete was a great example of this. He summed it up perfectly in one of my favorite Seeger songs, Quite Early Morning.

"So we keep on, whilst we live.
Until we have, no more to give.
When these fingers can strum no longer
Hand your guitar to young ones stronger."

This is the Pete Seeger I will always carry with me: the optimism, the faith in mankind, and the challenge to us all to carry on.

Photo  by Joe Holmes/CC 2.0 by
Lefty Pop

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