Sunday, February 2, 2014

Remembering Pete Seeger

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog essay titled, “How Pete Seeger Taught Me about Forgiveness.” It was one of those blog posts that continued to get hits month after month, then with the news of Pete Seeger’s death at the age of 94, my blog site was inundated with hits. I was glad that so many who were searching the web for information about the folk singer were finding an essay that was so personal and had such meaning to me. That story, which you can read here, related how Seeger’s example helped me as an adult to learn an important life lesson.

A Lifetime of Influence

The fact is that Pete Seeger was influencing my life before I even knew who Pete Seeger was. As a kid, when we were at school or at church and someone decided we all ought to sing a song, someone would usually come out with, “If I had a Hammer.” On the radio, The Byrds were “Turn, Turn, Turn.” At youth camps and retreats we would sing, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” I knew all of these songs without knowing who Pete Seeger was or that he had written those songs. He had an important message to share about what it meant to be alive, what values were important for us to strive for and hold on to. Those values and lessons were being instilled into our minds and into our culture by way of the songs that the folk singer wrote. 

The first time I became aware of Pete Seeger was when I was in the seventh grade and he was a guest on The Smothers Brothers Show. Having been blacklisted from radio and television since the 1950s, that was his first national broadcast TV appearance in my lifetime. I remember him singing "Guantanamera." He also sang a song in protest of the Viet Nam war, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," which was censored from the telecast, but Seeger was allowed to come back on a later date to perform it again. His call for peace struck a deep chord with me since I had been living in the shadow of Viet Nam since I was  11 or 12 years of age and would continue to do so until the draft was ended just before my eighteenth birthday. The ideal of peace in our time would remain with me to this day. 

It was my privilege to finally see the folk singer in person back in 1985 when he came to do a benefit concert at Sloss Furnace in Birmingham, Alabama. My wife and I attended and it was quite a memorable event. Pete Seeger would have been around 65 and he gave a dynamic performance. I still remember how he turned the entire audience into a choir singing in parts the refrain to "Wimoweh" while he bellowed out those high notes. 

His Social Vision

Many people have been writing this week about the remarkable life that Pete Seeger lived. PBS aired a re-broadcast of “The Power of Song” a beautiful documentary of Seeger’s life.  Arlo Guthrie shared some personal reflections about him with Time Magazine:

Pete had a real vision of what the country was about. He came from a long line of Puritan stock. His family had been in the country a very, very long time, and he had a sense of history. He wasn’t just a scholar of music; he was also a political scholar and a historical scholar. He loved the idealism of a nation founded on the principles he thought were important, and he spread that wherever he went.
I think to be asked about his religion, or about his beliefs, or about his political thoughts, was such an insult to him, because it was insulting to every American. He had a way of taking these personal events in his life and moving them forward so that they included everyone. If it had just affected him, he wouldn’t have said anything; he wouldn’t have written about it; he wouldn’t have made a big deal. But because it affected everyone, he was involved. I think that’s one of the things that motivated him about the environment, the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement. Sometimes he was right; sometimes he was wrong, but he was right most of the time. And he set out to make the country in what he imagined it was meant to be, what it could be. Whatever was going on, he was there because he had a sense of how it impacted everyone. It was not just personal. It was America.

Here is a brief excerpt from a tribute, “Remembering Pete,” by Rich Warren, host of The Midnight Special on WMFT radio in Chicago:

Pete Seeger, singer of folksongs, became the icon of American folk music against his will. He insisted the song was more important than its singer, and the listener was more important than the performer... Pete Seeger: idealist, iconoclast, and inspiration. He welcomed the friendship of anyone who loved music; his humble cabin in Beacon, New York became a gathering place of song. Pete lacked the gorgeous voice of his contemporaries such as Theo Bikel; he may have lacked the banjo and guitar finesse of the many he inspired to take up those instruments; but it was his spirit and his presence; his complete conviction and caring that always carried the day, the movement, and his popularity.

Coincidentally, in the January edition of The Oxford American is an article by Daniel Brook about the Highlander Folk School, a grassroots education center that once existed near Monteagle, Tennessee. It was there that Pete Seeger taught Martin Luther King his version of “We Shall Overcome,” which became the anthem for the Civil Rights Movement.” 

"An Inconvenient Artist"

Pete Seeger was blacklisted in the wake of the Communist scare during the McCarthy days of congressional hearings back in the 1950s and early 60s. Unable to appear on television or the radio, the folk singer began a career of touring college campuses. Ironically, he had a greater influence there than he might have had if he had remained in the broadcast media. He was highly instrumental in the folk revival that swept the college scene and gave cohesion to the student protests for peace during the 1960s. He was a strong and constant advocate for important social causes that included civil rights, peace, and environmental responsibility. The man who had been feared as a communist sympathizer when he was younger was honored with the National  Medal of the Arts at the age of 75. Upon granting the award, President Bill Clinton called him "an inconvenient artist, who dared to sing things as he saw them." Pete Seeger was a truly remarkable man. May his inspiration and influence continue in the years to come.   

From the film documentary, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song:

“Once upon a time, wasn’t singing a part of everyday life? As much as talking, physical exercise and religion, our distant ancestors wherever they were in this world, sang while pounding grain, paddling canoes, or walking long journeys. Can we begin to make our lives once more all of a piece? Finding the right songs and singing them over and over is a way to start. And when one person taps out a beat while another person leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.”

                   ~Pete Seeger

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