As a role model at the intersection of music and social activism, Pete Seeger defined the space completely. But it was characteristic of the man that while he cast a long shadow both physically and historically, it was never the kind of shadow in which nothing grows. Pete’s greatest gift was his ability to make other people think, “I could do that, too” — and then actually do it.
Whether it was enticing a crowd of indifferent people to raise their voices in song, or demonstrating what a real mensch does when faced with bullying, or showing how simple it was to turn newspaper headlines into songs, Pete taught by example in a way that made all of us want to do it, too.
As a singer in a recondite high-art tradition, I’ve not had much chance to build a repertoire based on the news of the day. I’ve not led a great many singalongs, and I’ve never had the opportunity to tell HUAC to go take a flying fuck at a rolling donut. But Pete’s example made me want to try — as a kid in the 60s and 70s, as a young man in the 80s, and now as a middle-aged curmudgeon in 2014 — and made me confident that if I did make the attempt, I’d gain something in the process.
No Pete, no Dylan. No Pete, no Joan Baez. No Pete, no “shall” to replace “will.” No Pete, no Sloop Clearwater; no clean Hudson river. No Pete, and who leads the largest singalong ever in the world: 500,000 people doing “Give Peace A Chance” in Washington, DC.
Pete did lots of things in his life, and he made me, and countless others like me, realize we could do them too. The essence of the man was his ability to bring others along — not for the ride, but as active agents. Any of us who sang along at his concerts felt, however briefly, that we, too, were leading the crowd.
Pete approached his own end with an equally inspiring equanimity. His song, “To My Old Brown Earth” says it perfectly:
“To my old brown earth,
and to my deep blue sky —
I’ll now give these last few
molecules of “I.”
And you, who sing —
and you who stand nearby:
I do charge you
not to cry.
Guard well our human chain;
watch well you keep it strong,
as long as sun will shine…
…and this, our home —
keep pure and sweet and green,
for I am yours,
and you are also mine.”
Once again leading by example, Pete showed us how to welcome death — not with the false consolation of fairytales, but with the calm recognition of his, and our, role as a link in the “human chain.”
And now I can picture myself facing a return to the Great Hum with equal serenity. If Pete did it, so can I.
While you’re alive: fight to make things better, sing to give people strength and hope, don’t give up.
He never got a Nobel Prize, but there’s no doubt: Pete Seeger WON. He won the distinction of living a long life full of song, and of never having backed down in the face of violence and intimidation. He won a clarity of conscience that comes from never selling out, never abandoning your principles. He won by outlasting the bastards. He won by making countless thousands of people think, “you know, I could do that, too” — and take the plunge into songwriting, into standing up for their beliefs, into refusing to be bought and sold, into making their own lives a greater or lesser embodiment of activism and engagement. He won by making a life worthy of emulation, and he won by facing his own gradually dimming fires with serenity and generosity.