In 1955, a folksinger named Pete Seeger was summoned to the Halls of Power in Washington, DC, where he was denounced by the fascist Senator Joe McCarthy to be blacklisted as a Communist. He was charged with contempt of Court (a contempt wholly deserved) and sentenced to 10 years in prison, though the charge was appealed and revoked before he ever was incarcerated. The U.S. Government wanted to shut him up and deny him access to public venues that would carry the message of justice and freedom to the American people.
In 2009, he was invited back to Washington DC to celebrate the inaugaration of America’s first black president, Barack Obama. Now the government was asking him to sing his message loud and clear to millions of television viewers worldwide, those hardy and now beloved songs about justice, freedom and love. The world had changed a lot in those intervening 54 years. And it was due in no small part to the unrelenting work of this remarkable and humble man.
Pete, I never met you, but I have much to ask you and much to praise. I wonder how you felt as a 90-year old man singing on that occasion. Was there a moment when you paused and thought, “Well, will you look at this? Who could have imagined it?” as you played your banjo with the inscription, “This machine surrounds hate— and forces it to surrender.” Perhaps you had a moment of naughty pleasure thinking “In your face, Joe McCarthy!”, a moment of sweet remembrance for all the fallen comrades you had shared the vision with, a moment of astonishment that this had come to pass in your lifetime. But I suspect that soon after such sweet reflections, you thought, “There sure is a lot more to do! Back to work!” Indeed, two years later, you appeared in an Occupy Wall Street rally, still feisty after all these years. How I admire that!
And what a work it was. Your concerns ranged widely, from fair labor practice to civil rights to environmental issues to anti-war work and beyond. You worked with the hammer of justice and the bell of freedom, but mostly you worked with the song of love and your love of song, using music as the vehicle to not only protest what’s wrong, but to create what’s right, to take on the big issues with songs like We Shall Overcome and delight the children with your song/story, The Foolish Frog, to approach a life of moral uprightedness with the seriousness it deserved but also with the play and enjoyment and fun all serious work needs. Gandhi spoke with his fasting body, Martin Luther King with his booming oration, and you, Pete Seeger, with the twang of your banjo.
Reading your short biography only, it’s stunning how much you influenced my life without me knowing it. Not only writing the songs that I sing with the kids that frame some of our ceremonies, not only bringing the banjo more front and center, not only the mix of music and community, music and social justice, music and children, but some surprising further connections. Like helping bring steel drums and South African songs to America long before Harry Belafonte and Paul Simon, like your work with Alan Lomax and performances with Josh White and Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie and (surprise!) your singing with Bess Lomax Hawes, the woman who co-wrote the book “Step It Down” with Bessie Jones, bringing the work of the Georgia Sea Island Singers into American music education and informing so much of my own work. Not to mention your influence with the folk musicians I listened to in my formative years— Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Kingston Trio and beyond— and those memorable songs like Turn, Turn, Turn and Where Have All the Flowers Gone.
But most impressive was your longevity, not just in years but in your unbroken sustaining vision. William Stafford has a beautiful poem about holding the thread that keeps us true to ourselves (see below). He says, “While you hold it you can’t get lost…You don’t ever let go of the thread.” And you didn’t. Your moral compass never seemed to flag and you defied the stereotype of the young rebel who sells out when faced with a mortgage, fame or the natural conservative bent of aging. You kept your true north to your dying day, spoke out clearly and strongly about injustice in all its many faces —and seemed to have a good time doing it.
My voice is small, my Earth Day Rap low on the hit parade, my public venue limited to Facebook, my blog and workshops, my bravery in speaking out small peanuts compared to staring down Congress. But though the size is different, the intent is the same— transformation of self and world through music with people of all sizes and shapes and races and creeds. And not only with the banjo, but with bagpipe and accordion as well!
I guess I didn’t know it until too late to tell you, but Pete, you are my hero! Thank you for these gifts beyond measure. Your work is done and the next chapter is in our hands. Be assured that we will keep weaving the cloth of justice and good living with the thread you bequeathed us. And now, my good man, enjoy a well-deserved rest.
THE WAY IT IS
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
Things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
Or die. And you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.