Pete Seeger died on Monday night. He is perhaps my greatest hero as I’ve long been inspired by his music and activism. His long life was a tireless effort to right wrongs and to bring people together in peace. He leaves the world a better place than he found it. And if you’re pessimistic about the world today, just imagine what it would be like without there ever being a Pete Seeger. Among the many things he accomplished in his 94 years, Pete:
- agitated for the rights of the poor and working people by organizing labor
- stood up for American civil liberties before the House Un-American Activities Committee
- participated in the Civil Rights movement
- lead a generation in the Vietnam anti-war movement
- in the vanguard the environmental efforts to clean up the Hudson River aboard the sloop Clearwater
- inspired millions that they could change the world by joining together in song
- continued as an activist through his final years, supporting the Occupy movement
I don’t recall when I first heard of Pete Seeger. His music was part of my childhood. He even appeared on Sesame Street. I remember watching the movie Alice’s Restaurant some time in my teens and not recognizing him until my mom told me who he was. Probably what really got it started for me was his performance leading a singalong of “This Land Is Your Land” on the Folkways: A Vision Shared tribute album. Through high school and college and beyond, I picked up some albums, read some books by and about him, and tried to teach myself banjo using his book. On two occasions, I was fortunate enough to see him perform in person. Once in 1995 with Arlo Guthrie at Wolf Trap in Virginia, and then again at Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival in 2002.
It’s kind of the whole point of Pete Seeger that there are no “Pete Seeger songs.” Sure, he got writing credit on some songs but he was the first to admit that he stole bits and pieces from other songs and cobbled them together to make something new. And he wanted you to to take pieces of his song and make something else. And share it with everyone. At his famous Carnegie Hall show, one entire set is Pete promoting the songs of new, young musicians (and Malvina Reynolds who was young at heart). The other set was the music of the Civil Rights movement. The whole point of the entire show was other people’s music and the community of music as he got the audience at Carnegie Hall singing along as well as many who’ve listened to that album over the years.
Nevertheless, one can’t help but think of the best Pete Seeger songs on this occasion. His music is a gift he leaves behind, both through the many recordings he made as well as being a living link between the roots of American music and the many artists he inspired and supported over the years. I looked in my iTunes and discovered that I have 215 Pete Seeger recordings! Of those, his most essential albums are We Shall Overcome (a live recording of his historic Carnegie Hall concert in 1963) and Singalong: Sanders Theatre, 1980 (perhaps the quintessential concert recording as summed up in the article “Pete Seeger And The Public Choir “). I perhaps felt closest to Pete when I performed with the Revels at Sanders Theatre and tried my best to do my part to engage the entire house.
Below are a handful of the most meaningful Pete Seeger songs, followed by rembrances collected all over the net.
“If I Had a Hammer”
“We Shall Overcome”
“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”
“Old Devil Time”
“Abiyoyo” from Reading Room
“Sailing Down this Golden River” performed by Sarah Lee Guthrie
“This Land is Your Land”
“Pete Seeger understood something fundamental about humans and music, which is that many people can’t sing on key, but all crowds can. Even without rehearsal, public choirs can be stunning to listen to and thrilling to be part of. And he believed that everyone should do it, that people should retain the ability to get in a room and sing, because it was good for you, and because it taught people to pitch in and be brave.”
American Songwriter: American Icons: Pete Seeger
“Pete Seeger outlasted the bastards.
But he did so much more than that. He showed us how to do our time with grace, with a sense of history and honor, with a progressive vision for the ages and a determination to embrace the next great cause because the good fight is never finished. It’s just waiting for a singer to remind usthat “the world would never amount to a hill of beans if people didn’t use their imaginations to think of the impossible.”
Smithsonian Folkways: A Tribute to Pete Seeger (1919-2014)
Bill Moyers: Remembering Activist and Folk Singer Pete Seeger
As recently as 2011, Seeger, a veteran of the labor, peace and civil rights movements, led an Occupy Wall Street protest through Manhattan. “Be wary of great leaders,” he said two days after the march. “Hope that there are many, many small leaders.”
Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub: Farewell, Pete Seeger
He told a story about showing up at a PTA meeting in Beacon to talk on some issue, and some local guy told Pete that Beacon didn’t need outsiders telling them what to do. This hurt Pete, since he’d been living in Beacon at that time for more than 30 years, in the house he built by hand. Pete told me that he realized a world reputation doesn’t count for much if you can’t use it to make things better in your home town.The “local project?” He said he wanted to get an old sloop, and sail the Hudson River signing to get people to clean it up.
“For all of his social activism, Seeger said more than once that if he had done nothing more than write his slim book How to Play the Five String Banjo, his life’s work would have been complete. …
“If Pete Seeger didn’t save the world, he certainly did change the lives of millions of people by leading them to sing, to take action and to at least consider his dream of what society could be.”
The Atlantic: Pete Seeger and the American Soul
His critics often called Pete Seeger anti-American. I think the opposite was true. I think he loved America so much that he was particularly offended and disappointed when it strayed, as it so often has, from the noble ideals upon which it was founded. I don’t think that feeling, or the protests it engendered, were anti-American. I think they were wholly, unabashedly American.
Feministing: RIP Pete Seeger
Q with Jian Ghomeshi: Remembering Pete Seeger (1919-2014)
On Point with Tom Ashbrook: The World According to Pete Seeger: A Remembrance
The Atlantic: ‘This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender’
How did Seeger take an instrument—one with no inherent properties of justice, as evidenced by its history—and assign it a new cultural value?
There is no way to answer this but to observe the rarity of a force like Pete Seeger upon the Earth.
Sure, the banjo has a jaunty, inviting sound. Sure, it can be played in a variety of ways, making it suitable for a range of musical genres. But these qualities did not prevent it from being a prop of racist entertainment. They did not make it a symbol of community. They did not transform it into a “machine [that] surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
That was the work of man. One man, really.
“Well, of course he passed away!” I’m telling everyone this morning. “But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.”
Phil Sandifer: Pete Seeger (1919-2014)