Pete Seeger died last week. Not very many people remember him these days; he was, after all, 94 years old and, for most of the people who do remember him, just a quaint and easily forgotten relic of American cultural history. Not for me.
I was 14 and a ninth grader in an American boarding school in 1960 when I first learned of Pete Seeger and the Weavers, the folk singing group he founded. I was told that they had been blacklisted in the 1950’s and still were in 1960’s for singing about issues deemed then to be communistic or un-American: equal rights for minorities, civil liberties, unions, pacifism.
At 14, I didn’t know what “blacklisted” meant, so I had to look that up, and then learn what civil liberties were and what pacifism was all about. As I learned those things and listened to Seeger’s songs like “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “The Bells of Rhymney, and “We Shall Overcome,” I began to see that there were other ways of looking at the world than the way the majority of Americans did. Than the way those around me did. Pete Seeger opened my eyes.
Over the next 20 years, I listened to other folk singers: Woody Guthrie, Odetta, Josh White, among others. Most of them are dead now, or like Joan Baez, they have grown tired of being looked upon as spokespersons for causes and social movements. There are no prominent folk singers today singing songs of peace and justice, unity and collective action to large crowds of enthusiastic supporters.
Not on a regular basis. Musicians perform at specific fund raising events, of course, and for disaster relief, but it’s not the same. In Pete Seeger’s heyday there were concerts and demonstrations and continuous calls to action based on broad, social issues, and his songs played an important role in those movements.
Unlike some, he never raged at those he believed were the enemies of freedom and justice. He never advocated hatred, and certainly not violence. He just sang songs in the belief that music could unite the common man for the common good, and that once united, they could not be ignored, or oppressed, or victimised.
I imagine that in the end he was not altogether happy with what he saw around him. The world is as conflicted as it ever was, and though there have been battles won on behalf of equal rights, the gap between the rich and poor grows wider, and the number of homeless people and poverty stricken families seems as high as ever.
Still, he never gave up or seemed to tire in the struggle against the greed and ignorance of the rich and powerful, or the indifference of the smug and comfortable. He just smiled, picked up his banjo one more time and sang.
At 92, Pete Seeger marched and performed during the Occupy Wall Street movement, in 2012 he recorded “Forever Young” with Arlo Guthrie and others in a commemorative recording of Bob Dylan’s songs, and in 2013, at 93, sang with Neil Young, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp in a rendition of “This Land is Your Land” as part of a Farm Aid benefit.
So here’s to you, Pete. You did more than your share. I imagine down the road someone will write a song about you like they did for Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie.
I hope it’s a good one with a great chorus that people everywhere will love to sing because, when the marchers gather at their doors, those bosses and bankers, deniers and despots should be reminded of just whom they’re up against.
Jim Holtz is a Boundary-based writer.