Pete Seeger: A life passionately lived

Pete Seeger was born May 3, 1919 in Patterson, New Jersey. He died Monday night, January 27, 2014 in NYC at age 94. Friend, teacher, preacher, roll model, mentor and hero to many generations.

Tuesday morning, Margaret and I were sitting at our breakfast table, enjoying our morning coffee, reading the Globe and Mail and talking about “things” when CBC radio broke in with the news that Pete Seeger had died Monday night. When we finished our regular ritual, I went upstairs to send Shawn and Dallas an e-mail, asking if we could pay tribute to Pete Seeger during today’s service through words and song. Then I cried. Why?

Because I’ve lost a best friend, albeit at a distance – one, who has always been there – one, whom I’ve known my entire life – one, whose career spans all my time on this earth. The folk ballads he sang filled our house when I was young. His songs: against the War in Viet Nam; and supporting civil and human rights and racial equality during my teens and early twenties, echoed and reinforced my parents’ values and ideas, which eventually became my own. He taught me that it’s not sufficient to have good values but that these values have to be given public voice and action.

He loved his country, my first country, in spite of its shortcomings, and worked to make it a better place.

He sang with unabashed joy and passion, and sometimes vehemence. He would just throw his head back and let ‘er go. I can see him standing on stage, banjo in hand, tapping his left foot.

I love his music. It has always been meaningful and singable – even by me – in the car, around the campfire, in the shower, where I do some of my best vocalizing, and at the inevitable sing-a-longs at his concerts. He was a master of getting the audience to let go of their inhibitions and sing with gusto.

For those of you who are not familiar with his considerable body of work, Pete Seeger was a folk singer and song writer extraordinaire – America’s balladeer – from the time he dropped out of Harvard with his banjo in 1938 right up to 2013 when he led a rousing sing-a-long of “This Land is Your Land” at the Farm Aid Concert in Sarasota, NY. An incredible 75 years.

In 1941, along with Woody Guthrie, he founded the Almanac Singers whose repertoire included sea chanteys and pioneer and pro-union songs, such as “Talking Union”.

In 1949 he formed The Weavers, the US’s preeminent folk singers, with Lee Hayes, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. They were prolific, singing traditional folk songs as well as social action ballads. Some of their great hits were: “Goodnight, Irene” which topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena”, Woody Guthrie’s “So Long It's Been Good to Know You”, “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and “Wimoweh”.

In 1953, all four were named as Communists and blacklisted by the music industry. The group soon disbanded, although The Weavers made several comebacks and new albums in the ‘60’s.

In 1955 Pete Seeger was investigated by the McCarthy Commission – the House Un-American Activities Committee – refusing to plead the 5th amendment (the right against self-incrimination), as it would suggest he had something to hide, and refusing to name names of friends and associates. Instead he invoked the 1st amendment (the right of freedom of expression).

In 1961 he was found guilty of contempt of Congress for these actions. His conviction was overturned on appeal in 1962.

Of course, all of this just added to his cachet among his many fans.

His repertoire also included songs: promoting international understanding and environmental stewardship, especially his beloved Hudson River; and, against war, militarism, the death penalty; and most lately, the climate of terror that existed after the attacks of 9-11. Always with passion and hope in a better future.

He taught and showed us how to care.

Some of his other signature songs included: Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Guantanamera, We Shall Overcome, Last Night I had the Strangest Dream, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, Whose Side Are You On?, Little Boxes, Turn! Turn! Turn!, and If I Had a Hammer.

He was an active Unitarian attending congregations in Manhattan and the Hudson River Valley, where, until this fall, he would often provide the music.

Now he is gone. His music lives on. His spirit and legacy remain within each of us.

He demonstrated that the song is mightier than the sword.

The words he inscribed on his banjo said it all: This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.

So long Pete…it’s been good to know you…