World

Pete Seeger

Man of the People

May 3, 2021 by

Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger

May 3 is Pete Seeger’s 102nd birthday. This article, written as a tribute after his death in 2014, was originally published on plough.com.

Most popular music icons create a sleek persona, a marketing value to surround themselves and their abilities. The image is so gilded, no one knows how much is real musical talent and how much is hype. Who writes most of their songs? How large is their costume and cosmetics entourage?

Compare that with a man who clambers up on an empty stage with a banjo, and tells the crowd, “You know this song! And if you don’t, you will in a minute.” He proceeds to throw lines to the audience till even the most self-conscious listeners find themselves singing along with abandon. He does this through the age of ninety-four. He may say now and then, “My voice is cracked, I can’t sing anymore.” Then he goes ahead and sings, gnarled hands dancing on the banjo strings.

My husband and I were lucky – we both grew up in homes brimming with folk music, roots music, people music, any sort of music that spoke of the struggle for brotherhood, justice, or just common humanity. Anyone walking past the window of my house was likely to hear Pete Seeger’s high tenor bouncing off the back of Carnegie Hall and our cinderblock walls.

Pete’s songs themselves were great, but they also reflected his worldview and made us feel we knew the guy. Following his life via news and new songs, we could sense, even as kids, that all of it rang true. He wasn’t changing his story to fit popular demand. He didn’t need to reinvent himself after any great personal scandal. He wasn’t even slightly sorry for his time on the blacklist during the Joe McCarthy witch-hunts. He didn’t back down on his anti-Vietnam stance or alter his tune for any war or conflict thereafter.

Just as importantly, his life on the stage and the road did not change his love and loyalty to his wife Toshi, who often stayed home with the children and was never fond of spotlights.

Now we have our own kids to raise, and again the stereo is kept busy passing on a legacy. On one of his last albums, “Pete,” his voice is beginning to quaver a little, which only lends power to one of his greatest songs:

One blue sky above us, one ocean lapping all our shore,
One earth so green and round, who could ask for more?
And because I love you, I’ll give it one more try
To show my rainbow race it’s too soon to die.
Some folks want to be like an ostrich, burying their heads in the sand.
Some hope that plastic dreams can unclench all those greedy hands.
Some hope to take the easy way: poisons, bombs – they think we need them.
Don’t you know you can’t kill all the unbelievers? There’s no shortcut to freedom.

From her highchair, our one-year-old daughter would wait for her favorite part, then gleefully pipe up along with Pete, “Poisons! Bombs!” The contrast between the ugly words and her happy baby voice was jarring, but also a great introduction to the second verse:

Go tell all the little children, tell all the mothers and fathers too.
Now’s our last chance to learn to share what’s been given to me and you.

My husband Jason had always dreamed of crossing paths with Pete. As a kid he had written to invite Pete to a school concert, and still had an answering postcard with an image of the Milky Way galaxy, including a large white arrow pointing to one tiny speck in the spiral, and the caption “You Are Here.” On the back he had written, “Hi Jason, right now I’m working very hard on my song book, so I won’t be able to make it, but someday we’ll meet. (signed) Old Pete.” He had sketched a banjo under his name.

Our young family lived on the Hudson for a few years, and fell in love with the beautiful but still beleaguered river. At the time, Pete (already over ninety) was as active as ever in the Clearwater gatherings and the grassroots action to clean up and protect the river.

Pete and his wife, Toshi, at their homePete and his wife, Toshi, at their home.

When the Beacon Sloop Club convened, Jay took his guitar and two friends along. They had barely gotten out of the car when they heard a shout, “Hey, welcome!” Pete was the one-man welcoming committee outside the door. He nodded at the guitar. “Come on in, and let’s tune up!”

Once banjo and guitar strings were twanging into tune, Pete had another idea. “Why don’t we sing a song to start off the sloop club meeting? Do you have a favorite?” Jay didn’t have to think long about that one; he’d just been listening to “My Rainbow Race” in the car. “Great!” said Pete. “You’re going to lead it.”

Jay remembered thinking, “He’s got to be kidding. Pete Seeger is asking me to lead his song? That’s like Peyton Manning asking me to play QB in the next game.” But as he told us later, “Once we were up on stage, singing our hearts out, it didn’t matter. Pete has an uncanny way of bringing out the best in everybody.”

Throughout the sloop club event, the committee kept asking for volunteers to staff various festivals in the upcoming fall season. Every time, Pete was the first person to raise his hand.

What’s this country going to do without Pete? Where are today’s voices of conscience and courage?

Lettered on Pete’s banjo are the words: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Substitute “man” for “machine,” and it’s a fitting tribute. But he didn’t want a fan club in life, and I bet he wouldn’t want one in death. What about keeping his legacy alive through song instead? We don’t need to sing to packed theaters, or achieve platinum records. We may have cracked or wavering voices. But locally, between generations and across divisions, let’s sing those songs, write our own, and continue what Pete called the folk process. If we do it right, it will be more than song. It will translate into action for a more peaceful and just world.

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About the author

Maureen Swinger

Maureen Swinger

Maureen Swinger is an editor at Plough Publishing House and lives at the Fox Hill Bruderhof in Walden, New York, with her...

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