The Folk Singer Who Kept Going

Posted on February 13, 2014 in Perspectives
By dkelly

Pete Seeger, the quintessential agent of social change and an inspirational folk musician, passed away last week at 94. His legacy, however, is timeless.

Born into a family of politically-progressive musicians, Seeger’s activism was nurtured at an early age. His father, a Harvard-educated musicologist, was removed from his professorship at the University of California at Berkeley because of his strong pacifism during World War I. His mother, a violinist, was a professor at the Juilliard school.

But Seeger’s work has proved to be more than a mere product of his family environment. During the 1950s progressive movement, Seeger co-wrote and popularized “If I Had a Hammer.” “We Shall Overcome,” the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement, was sung by Seeger. During anti-Vietnam protests of the late 1960s, “Bring Them Home” was a powerful response. Critical of President Lyndon Johnson, Seeger led a group of over 500,000 protesters during the Vietnam Moratorium March singing-along to John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” For all his life, Seeger stood for environmentalism, equal rights, nuclear disarmament and peace.

Seeger’s unquestionably strong political feelings, although widely admired, were more-than-once met with resistance. An article published in 1941 by The Atlantic Monthly stated that songs written by the The Almanac Singers, a group of politically radical folk singers of which Seeger was a founding member, were “Strictly subservient and illegal.” The author, Carl Friedrich, went on to say that the group “Ridicule[d] the American defense effort, democracy, and the army.” Seeger was called to testify in front of the Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 due to his connection with the communist party and was later convicted for contempt of Congress in 1961, a decision overturned less than a year later. Although an early supporter of communism and the USSR, Seeger later rescinded his opinion and apologized for his misjudgment.

Seeger’s contributions go beyond just activism, too. His book and subsequent instructional video How to Play the Five-String Banjo is considered a classic and has inspired countless musicians to pick up the instrument. Seeger’s television show, Rainbow Quest, which aired from 1965 until 1966, showcased such influential players as Lead Belly, Johnny Cash and Roscoe Holcomb.

This short survey of Seeger’s life provides only a glimpse of his tremendous impact. To develop a deeper understanding, one must to listen to his music. What separated Seeger from the crowd was his profound ability to put his ambitions, a list so long it couldn’t fit on this page, into an organized set of coherent thoughts presented with whole-hearted emotion. Seeger’s organic banjo playing and scraggly voice represented American idealism in its most stripped-down and pure form. Seeger believed that grass-roots level change and cooperation was possible, a position that is too often discouraged.

Borrowing from Woody Guthrie, who famously had the phrase “This machine kills fascists” written on the face of his guitar, Seeger’s banjo said, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” along its outer edges. These simple words bring together all of Seeger’s diverse efforts to combat oppression, inequality, and destruction into one unifying theme—an undying effort to bring about peace and social progress. Although Seeger, in the words of Brownie McGhee, a great American blues singer and friend of Seeger’s, may have been “Fighting a losing battle, [he was] having a lot fun tryin’ to win.”