Valedictories were piled high this week for Pete Seeger, a singular American troubadour who lived a huge, long life. Like the recent passing of Mandela, no one looks at the death of a nonagenarian with the kind of sorrow that we hold for those who die young. No, for people like Pete Seeger, we are of course sad to see them pass, but we praise the meaningful life they led. Everyone has their pantheon of music gods who they revere. And over the course of our lives, we tend to change out those Rock and Roll tin gods for others, based on our tastes. For me anyway, I have a very short list of musicians whose art I hope survives the human race and echoes through the universe forever like an annuciation of the human condition. Those are: Bach, Beethoven, Led Zeppelin and Pete Seeger.
There is a slight irony that this wise old banjo picker died on the night of the Grammy’s. A continent away, a commercial industry lauded whole genres of performers whose music may capture the vapid, white hot void of pop and hip-hop, but offer nothing really to exalt the human condition or highlight our collective plight. Nor do those shiny, autotuned people celebrate what is good and noble about us all.
Pete Seeger’s music did the opposite of winning platinum records (though the man had hits of his own, and his songs covered by others were hits in their own right.). For Seeger, music was a convener and motivator for social action. A life-long pro-union socialist, he was the last of his generation that truly fought for workers rights, then civil rights, then against war and poverty. Wherever there was an injustice, he showed up with his banjo to provide hope for those who fought for freedom and justice.
As a music innovator, he popularized folk music, the banjo itself and brought folk melodies out of the mountains and into the movements of his day. Most people may not realize that the peace anthem “We Shall Overcome” was popularized by Pete, and became the song of the civil rights era. When approached to lend his name to the production of a “Pete Seeger” banjo, he took no royalties. He lived an esthetic, almost monastic life in an old cabin along the Hudson River, giving away much of his winnings to causes around him–the preservation of the Hudson Valley watershed, civil rights and liberties.
There are plenty of obituaries out there getting into the marrow of the man–his activism, his defiance of the McCarthy-era witch hunt. What I loved about Pete Seeger was his moral consistency and his impulse toward justice for all. He was ahead of his time, and was until the very end. Here are some of my favorite songs by Pete. They are simply beautiful, and are among the few works of art that I can say changed my life. Or rather, helped me get back home, to my own people–those working folks, their condition and the need to help those who are less fortunate. Some have called Pete as secular saint. I can’t disagree.
Thanks Pete. Time for my generation to pick up the banjo, I think. We’ll take it from here.