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Much of my thinking these days is overshadowed by the death of Pete Seeger this past week. At 94, his passing could hardly be unexpected, though it came as a surprise, nonetheless. He was such a constant in our culture it seems strange that he’ll not be there to exhort us into song, waving his long arms, pointing his chin to the stars. Personally, I’ll miss the unpredictable phone calls when he’ll run a verse of a new song, give me tips on teaching harmony in the South African tradition, or pepper me with questions about a new technology to further break down the “fourth wall” between performer and audience. He was the North Star of the folk music world, a link to a glorious and tumultuous past, a conscience guiding us to a humane and purpose-driven future. He is only gone in body, however, what he contributed hardly requires his presence.
Pete’s actually been preparing us for this moment for years. I recall hearing him sing “Quite Early Morning” in 1970. When he intoned “And when these fingers can strum no longer, hand the old banjo to young ones stronger” I remember thinking, “For crying out loud, Pete, you’re 50 years old! Cut out with the death talk already!” But as I’ve learned since, assuming the role of elder is to view and to accept mortality and, with equal parts humility and generosity, let others know they are neither the first, nor the last. We accomplish things in small steps, but we each must make those steps. And, as the song reminds us, “the longest march can be won.”
Pete was a shy man. He was never comfortable with the attention he received so he developed a persona that was both familiar and distancing. He appeared on vast stages: whether it be Carnegie Hall or before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. And on each he knew he had an audience and a microphone and something to say.
Pete, along with Joe McCarthy, created my job, lots of folksingers’ jobs. When Pete was blacklisted because of McCarthy’s witch hunts, he went from being a member of the biggest group in popular music, the Weavers, to being unemployable. So he and his wife, Toshi, contacted church groups, small colleges, nascent folksong societies, and the like across America looking for any kind of work. Unwittingly, they helped establish a grassroots network of music presenters that thousands of musicians benefit from to this day. More importantly, it created a sense of connectedness and community that helped introduce tens of thousands of people to the joys of making their own music. In an age dominated by the consolidation of the “entertainment industry” into a product-oriented, profit-driven cultural monopoly, the idea of people taking control of their own common wealth, making their own music, organizing their own dances, and providing for their own entertainment was nothing short of revolutionary. And it didn’t stop there.
To be an audience member in one of Pete’s concerts was a transformative experience. Make no mistake, Pete was a terrific musician. He did things with the banjo that had never been done. He was a masterful performer. But that was not his gift. People who had been told their entire lives they could not sing found that they could. In harmony! People who believed they had no power suddenly knew they did. People who were convinced they were alone found they were not. Concert as community: it was unheard of, unimaginable, unforgettable.
His reach was far beyond what the obits will cite. Any kid who sang around a campfire probably owes his or her repertoire to Pete. He helped uncover and reclaim an enormous body of American folksongs. Anybody who sings songs for kids today who claims they didn’t pore over Pete’s “Children’s Concert at Town Hall” album is lying to you. For a song-leader, Pete’s performances were university classrooms. His championing of new, up-and-coming songwriters (Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan, especially, in their early days) would seem rare signs of grace and generosity today. And his own skills as a songwriter, often overlooked, were prodigious. The fact that “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” are commonly thought to be traditional songs is a compliment that few songwriters achieve. Or deserve.
Pete was powerful but hardly perfect. He clung to the CP party line about Hitler far too long before World War II and on Stalin far too long afterward. He was a champion of human rights with a blind spot (as does much of the American Left) concerning Cuba. But he faced his mistakes in ways that traced the thinking, evolution, and change that ordinary people inevitably struggle with and that celebrities seldom voice. Even in his missteps he sought to teach. Progress, not perfection, was his muse.
Personally, Pete was a mentor who treated me as a peer, a decidedly undeserved kindness. He was a husband and partner to his wife, Toshi, who passed away last July, a signal to those who knew and loved them both that Pete was surely not far behind. He was a beacon of optimism and hope in a cynical time. The fact that I’ve had to go back and edit so many verbs from present to past tense in describing Pete is testimony to how strange it is now to think of him in those terms. But, as the song Pete gave us right out of the Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “To everything there is a season…a time to be born, a time to die.” For Pete it is, at long last, a time of peace.
Pete Seeger, ¡Presente!