My first hero, Pete Seeger, died yesterday. He was part of movements from anti-war in the 1930s, to pro-war in the 1940s, to labor and Civil Rights in the 1950s, back to anti-war in the 1960s, to environmentalism in the 1970s. Beyond that, he was a fine banjo player and a funny and tender singer of children’s songs and traditional songs.
The transcript of the House Committee on Un-American Activities questioning Seeger in 1955 is worth reading:
MR. TAVENNER: I hand you a photograph which was taken of the May Day parade in New York City in 1952, which shows the front rank of a group of individuals, and one is in a uniform with military cap and insignia, and carrying a placard entitled CENSORED. Will you examine it please and state whether or not that is a photograph of you?
MR. SEEGER: It is like Jesus Christ when asked by Pontius Pilate, “Are you king of the Jews?”
CHAIRMAN WALTER: Stop that.
He was insistent on creation rather than consumption, participation rather than passivity. Listening to him lead a crowd is pretty amazing. He coaxed audiences into singing four-part harmony, briefly giving them ideas for new parts. In recordings you can hear him exhorting them: “Oh, now, you can sing better than that. Some people are just sitting back thinking they paid for their ticket, don’t need to do any work. Now, you might as well know there’s some things in this world you enjoy a lot more if you do it yourself.”
Ellen Kushner describes this experience in her (excellent) Sound and Spirit radio program on singing (starts at 26:30):
My cosmic singing master is Pete Seeger, a man who’s been singing and encouraging people to sing for over 50 years. I remember going to see Pete Seeger for the first time when I was in college. He stood there generously giving of himself, getting the entire room to sing. I was taking an intro to Buddhism course and I thought, he’s a bodhisattva! A bodhisattva refuses nirvana and instead offers to be reborn so he can help others find enlightenment. I recently heard from a friend who had just come from a Pete Seeger concert. Approaching 80, Pete’s golden voice was gone. But after years of ripping down the barriers between himself and the audience, my friend reported, all Pete had to do was shout out the first line of a song and the audience sang the whole thing right back to him.
I wrote Seeger a letter one time and got back a postcard from him, complete with a little sketch of a banjo by his signature. Some moments when his music was important in my life:
I have campaigned for John Kerry all fall and am crying my eyes out after he loses the election. A friend suggests listening to Seeger’s recording of “We Shall Overcome” (which he cobbled together from Southern labor songs and hymns.) It actually helped.
Anders Breivik shoots 77 of his fellow Norwegians and complains during his trial that the country is overrun with “cultural Marxists” and brainwashed with Seeger’s song “Rainbow Race” (popularized by a Norwegian singer). The country’s answer? No riots, no return of hatred. Tens of thousands of Norwegians gather in the rain to sing “Rainbow Race.”
One blue sky above us
One ocean lapping all our shores
One earth so green and round
Who could ask for more?
I am working at the jail. My favorite client is released unexpectedly, and I know his modus operandum is sleeping on porches (he finds homeless shelters unsanitary). Boston winter is no joke, and I’m scared for him. The only thing that comforts me is listening to Seeger’s recording of Hobo’s Lullaby.
Don’t you worry ’bout tomorrow
Let tomorrow come and go
Tonight you’re in a nice warm boxcar
Safe from all that wind and snow
Go to sleep you weary hobo
Let the towns drift slowly by
Can’t you hear the steel rails humming?
That’s the hobo’s lullaby.
I’ll finish with Seeger’s own epitaph for himself:
Well may the skiers turn,
The swimmers churn, the lovers burn
Peace may the generals learn
When I’m far away.
Well may the world go,
The world go, the world go,
Well may the world go,
When I’m far away.