“There is hope for the world.”
When Pete Seeger died in New York at the age of 94, he left behind a body of work that will be explored by fans and students of American social history, folkore and music for decades. Dozens of recordings and videos, books (including How to Play the Five-String Banjo) and a parade of major arts awards capture the deep impression his work has made on the American landscape.
But it’s not just the major events outlined in a biography that are so striking—it is also how he lived.
Seeger was not a spectator to life or a professional thinker. Every opportunity that aligned with his values was explored: instruments scattered around his boyhood home were played; when his group was blacklisted he toured on his own; when events that would benefit from his presence were held, he showed up no matter how old he was. When life called, Seeger showed up with his shoes on, ready to go.
I have an idea that he would not want to be idolized in biographies or in our memories, but I think he wouldn’t mind our noticing that his was an uncommon life.
The unpressured but musically enriching experiences of his childhood triggered a fierce love for “old-time music,” but he learned early that this acoustic tradition could be used to communicate themes that remained important throughout his life.
In his work as cofounder of The Weavers and while performing solo later, he wrote and coauthored songs that remain timeless and rich with meaning: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn!” and the iconic popularization of “We Shall Overcome” were among the songs that defined the civil rights era in the U.S.
Sometimes living with integrity meant protest, including arrest and walking into trouble where there was the potential for arrest. Most recently he participated in a solidarity march in Columbus Circle, New York City with Occupy Wall Street in 2011. He was 92 years old.
In the 1950s The Weavers were blacklisted for their political views, which meant all performances ceased and radio stations stopped playing their music. Then in 1957 Seeger was convicted for contempt of Congress when he refused to plead the Fifth Amendment before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
“I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. I will be very glad to tell you of my life if you want to hear it.”
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison but an appeals court overturned the conviction.
Although he was for a time a member of the Communist party, his ideas evolved as new information became available. His commitment to social activism never waned but he came to reject violent revolutions in favor of incremental change accomplished on a grassroots level. In his autobiography Where Have All the Flowers Gone (W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), Seeger apologized for his early comments about Stalin, and went on to write new music (“Big Joe Blues”) condemning him. Even when his views were highly publicized and others were invested in one point of view or another, Seeger retained the capacity for critical thinking and independent decision-making about the issues of the day.
When his wife Toshi-Aline Ota died in 2013, they were just a few months shy of their 70th wedding anniversary. Friends and colleagues witnessed their mutual devotion which lasted for decades—all this after a first meeting at a square dance.
Pete’s father, Charles Louis Seeger, Jr., was among the first to develop ethnomusicology as a discipline, and he taught Pete about the “folk process”: notice the music where it is, and observe how it changes over time and in different communities. Seeger’s early work with folklorist Alan Lomax at the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress enabled recovery and cataloging of songs that might have been lost without their work. In his own career Seeger lived the idea that folk music is alive, and suitable for adaptation during changing times—he would add verses to familiar tunes when inspired to do so, including a couple of rarely heard verses that were part of “This Land Is Your Land,” performed at Barack Obama’s Inaugural concert in 2009.
Chop wood, carry water.
For Seeger, “chop wood, carry water” was neither koan nor metaphor. Seeger’s grandson Kitama Cahill-Jackson reported that he was chopping firewood even 10 days before his death. The log cabin he lived in with wife Toshi for decades was built by their own hands. And when his career was short-circuited by political blacklisting, he put one foot in front of the other and went back on the road, solo. While visiting campuses and performing in small gigs all over the country, he built ties to younger audiences in particular.
One and Many.
Although Seeger’s musical platform was big enough to pointedly address global issues, he came to affirm the value of one person, and then another, each living with integrity and together effecting change where change is desperately needed.
“I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when things get big.”
He took responsibility for what was right in front of him too. The Hudson River was in his backyard, and its pollution became a focus for action as early as the 1960s. Seeger cofounded the nonprofit Hudson River Sloop Clearwater whose mandate included environmental activism and education through the sailing ship Clearwater, and Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival, “a music and environmental festival.”
Seeger brought the banjo out of the Appalachian hills and onto the airwaves. As one of the primary engines of the folk music revival, he triggered the changing sounds available to American listeners in the 1950s. He mentored other musicians on the folk circuit—today the internet ether is full of contemporary folk artists sharing anecdotes of so many kindnesses. And he did something else for the rest of us. Minnesota resident Nat Case says this:
Here’s what Pete Seeger did, besides all the civil rights and environmental and union and generally good leftist advocacy he did, and besides writing and adjusting tons of songs that feel like this country’s natural-born musical blood: What he did was to get people to rethink the pernicious idea that singing was for professionals. Over and over, he took the “concert,” that huge ego-dump that we have made a central part of what music IS, and turned it on its head. “YOU sing this,” he said. Music is part of being human, and he not only reminded us of this, but injected that humanity back into his audience, pushed it back into our hearts, and then let us shout it back out of our mouths. We would be a different country without Pete. I would be a different person without him.
For nearly a century he took a high and harder road. The music and its contribution to the greater good were more important than commercial success, political safety or easy applause. He kept showing up, year after year on stage after stage. Those tall bones and narrow shoulders didn’t break under the burden of conscience or work.
Seeger’s highest values looked like equality, tasted like freedom and sounded like justice, lived on a planet that is, or should be, whole and life-giving. I, for one, am grateful to have shared the planet with him for a little while.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman