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After 94 years, on January 27, 2014, the world lost Pete Seeger. The world is the lesser for that loss. The accolades for this giant of folk songs and herald of all causes just, are pouring in from around the world. He is celebrated for regularly showing up at mass protests, for singing songs so transcendent (This Land is Your Land; We Shall Overcome; Where Have All the Flowers Gone) they are sung in many foreign languages all over the earth and for his mentoring and motivating of millions of people and children.
Pete Seeger overcame most of his doubters and adversaries. On his famous five string banjo, he inscribed the slogan, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
No less than the Wall Street Journal, after reprinting an ugly commentary on Seeger’s earlier radicalism, wrote: “troubadour, rabble rouser, thorn in the side of the bloated and complacent, recipient of the National Media of Arts, American idealist and family man, Seeger maintained what Mr. Springsteen called his ‘nasty optimism’ until late in life.”
At a Madison Square Garden songfest for Seeger’s 90th birthday, Springsteen added: “Pete Seeger decided he’d be a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history. He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience.”
I met and spoke to Pete Seeger a few times and can attest to his steady determination and uplifting spirit. All the above are measures of this authentic man and his rare traits of character, personality, intuition, scope and focus.
The man’s character shone when he was subpoenaed before the powerful House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in August 1955, along with other outspoken entertainers and actors, he refused to take the easier way out and invoke the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination. Instead, he made himself vulnerable to later prosecution by pleading the First Amendment and his right to free speech, petition and assembly.
After rejecting the Committee’s probe about whom he associated with politically and his beliefs, he suggested that they discuss the music that the committee members found so objectionable. He offered unsuccessfully to sing his songs, then and there, before the startled clenched-jaw politicians.
“I think,” he told them, “these are very improper questions for any American to be asked especially under such compulsion as this.” In those days, that was an astounding act of courageous character.
He paid the price, when he was prosecuted and convicted before winning his appeal. In those years of “commie symps” witch-hunts by McCarthyite zealots, his career nearly collapsed. Television networks banned him for over a decade; record companies shunned him; concerts dwindled. So what did he do? He continued recording, touring among everyday people around the country, learning music from them and singing on street corners, at union halls, churches, schools and what he called “hobo jungles.”
He quit a popular band he formed – the Weavers – after it did an advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes. More recently, according to his producer, Jim Musselman, and record label (Appleseed Recordings – http://appleseedmusic.com/), he turned down an offer by BP of $150,000 to use one of his songs in a commercial, even though he could have given the money to charity.
Complementing this sterling character, Seeger possessed a stunningly functional personality. His resilience in overcoming setbacks, ideological adversaries and smear specialists was legendary. That was because he never let his ego get in the way and wear him down and he recognized the big picture of social change and how he could use his stardom to amplify the people’s efforts for peace, justice, the environment and other necessities of the good life. It helped mightily that he was married to the stalwart Toshi for seventy years.
“The key to the future of the world,” he remarked in 1994, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.” In 2009, he said his task was “to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.” He placed his greatest hope in women wisely teaching their children. Three years ago, he won a Grammy for his album, “Tomorrow’s Children.”
His connection with audiences of all kinds, here and abroad, was uncannily attuned to getting them to participate and sing. For Mr. Seeger, it was not about the song or the singer – these were the means – it was about the audience’s own experience.
He disliked the overwhelming sound of rock that blotted out the lyrics. The lyrics, he believed, were what needed to be communicated and therefore had to be heard, sung and understood. That is one reason he avoided electric guitars and other electrified instruments.
In his biography by David Dunaway, titled How Can I Keep From Singing: Pete Seeger, Mr. Seeger spoke about rural traditions. “I liked the strident vocal tone of the singers, the vigorous dancing. The words of the songs had all the meat of life in them. Their humor had a bite, it was not trivial. Their tragedy was real, not sentimental.”
Arlo Guthrie, son of the great Woody Guthrie, a mentor of Seeger’s, played with Pete for nearly fifty years. He spoke to Time Magazine about his magic in getting audiences to “relax and sing along with him. My eyes just opened up and I couldn’t believe what was happening in front of me. He would just wave his hand, and you could hear people singing…Someone who has not [seen him] will find it hard to believe. It was almost as if he had some extra sense that allowed that kind of response. There’s no one else I have ever seen in my life that has had that, on any country, on any continent or in any city. Nobody came close.”
His intuition was augmented by a vast knowledge of American history, astonishing memory and what one reporter called “a vast repertoire of ballads, spirituals and blues songs.”
Seeger’s scope covered just about every social justice cause that arose from the people and some that he helped ignite such as opposing wars and cleaning up rivers. He knew what he was singing about, such as when he focused on his beloved Hudson River. He launched his famous 106-foot sloop, the Clearwater, whose journey with musicians up and down the Hudson unleashed civic and litigation energies that have greatly reduced the pollution of that storied river. Again and again, the Clearwater would take adults and children on these trips so they could appreciate the river, learn, sing, and resolve to combat the polluters, such as General Electric and its dumping of PCBs. The children, recounted Musselman, would go home knowledgeably motivated and urge their parents to act. The work done on the Clearwater is now a model for cleanup efforts in other rivers.
This man, who led sing-alongs and gave benefit concerts for the downtrodden and the defiant, would bring his audience to silence and then joyous singing. Imagine, today’s domineering, ear-splitting, flashing bands jetting their fans into frenzied, uproarious, sweaty reactions with the sounds drowning out the lyrics. That was never Seeger’s vision. Thank goodness he leaves behind hundreds of hours of music that stimulates both the ears and sweetens or alerts the minds.
Musselman related a powerful example of how Pete Seeger communicated at gatherings. He quotes Seeger as saying, “Nelson Mandela went from prison to the presidency of his country without a shot being fired. The Berlin Wall came down without a shot being fired. And did anybody think there would be peace in Northern Ireland? There is always hope when it comes to unlikely social change.”
“Pete planted many seeds all over the world,” Musselman concluded. That is why Pete Seeger lives on.
Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.