Pete Seeger

Some musicians are one-hit wonders and their music winds up in sales bins packed into CDs labeled “Hits of the ’60s” (or ’70s or ’80s). Other musicians last longer with entertaining dance beats that keep their music in more frequent rotation. But, Pete Seeger’s music is in another category entirely: He had hits; he got people up on their feet; but he was most interested in moving our hearts. For example, Pete (and he always wanted to be called just “Pete”) collaborated with Amnesty International on a classic Bob Dylan tune “Forever Young,” joined by the Rivertown Kids, a school-age music group from Pete’s home community.

For our Summer 2014 World Music Festival—here at Interfaith Peacemakers—I’m sharing two videos related to that performance. The first video screen is the story behind that recording. The second screen is the song itself. This is classic Pete–a 90-year old and pre-teens making great music together across the generations—drawing on a hit by a musician who was inspired by Pete’s music from ages ago.

Pete died January 17, 2014—and below the two video screens you’ll find various tributes to Pete’s amazing life. His music still is ringing strongly among us.

Daniel Buttry

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Remembering … PETE SEEGER …

From Daniel Buttry in early 2014: After I heard the news that Pete Seeger had died on Monday (January 27), I immediately began seeing tributes from friends. Singer-songwriter and peacemaker David LaMotte (who wrote a profile of Imam Abdullah Antepi for this series) posted an inspiring profile of Seeger. David told about preparing for a concert with Pete Seeger and discovering, before the crowd arrived, that Seeger decided to rearrange the audience’s seating—personally.

AS DAVID TELLS IT:

David LaMotte logo“When Pete arrived, the room was set with straight rows of portable chairs, with an aisle down the middle. and he took a look at the room, put his banjo down, and started moving chairs. He didn’t like the rigidity of the straight lines. Pete has always been in the business of creating community, introducing people to each other and to their own capacity to get things done if they work together. He didn’t want straight rows of obedient listeners, he wanted people to see each other as well as him, to embrace and support each other and to sing together.”

Seeger didn’t ask the ushers or event organizers to move the chairs. No. As David tells it: “He just started moving chairs. Naturally, people who were there looked at each other and said, ‘Maybe we should help Pete.’ Before long, everyone had pitched in and the room was reset. It was more welcoming and spoke more of community than it had before. Ever the organizer, Pete showed us how it is done: Do the work. Show people what it looks like, then welcome other people into the work when they show up. Gandhi didn’t say, ‘Demand the change.” He said, ‘Be the change.’ Pete lived that. From all I can tell, he lived it for nine decades.”

Our profile of …
Pete Seger (1919-2014)

2009 Armed Forces Inaugural CommitteeThe power of a song. As the war in Vietnam was building, CBS television censored a song Pete Seeger sang on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The song did not mention Vietnam or President Johnson. It was not overtly political. It was a song about an army training exercise during World War II in which troops were trying to cross a stream in a swamp. Waist Deep in the Big Muddy tells about the soldiers complaining, but the captain insisting they push on. Each verse finds the soldiers deeper—knee deep, waist deep, neck deep—“We were neck deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool said to push on.” Finally the captain drowns, and the soldiers turn around feeling lucky to get out alive. Seeger then sang, “But every time I read the papers, that old feeling comes on: We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool says to push on.”

After the song was cut by network censors, the Smothers Brothers went public, generating more attention for the issue than CBS had expected. The network relented, and the song was aired with 7 million people viewing it. Waist Deep in the Big Muddy conveyed a powerful image to Americans who were getting frustrated and disillusioned by their nation’s growing involvement in the swamp of the Vietnam War.

Yes, the power of a song! All around the world, whenever there is a people’s movement for justice, the words arise: “We Shall Overcome.”

Seeger was active in the South during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. He chronicled the songs that were such a significant part of the movement and spread the stories of the civil rights activists around the country through his concerts. I’ll Be All Right was a gospel hymn sung in black churches throughout the South. In a 1946 strike at a South Carolina tobacco factory, the song-leader, Lucille Simmons, slowed down the tempo and pluralized the last verse: “We will overcome.” When some of the strikers attended the Highlander Folk School later in the year, Highlander’s music director Zilphia Horton picked it up and later taught it to Seeger, who added a verse or two. Along the way “will” was changed to “shall,” perhaps by Septima Clark. At the 25th anniversary celebration of Highlander, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the participants. When Seeger led the singing, King said, “We Shall Overcome—that song really sticks with you, doesn’t it?” Guy Carawan had learned the song from Horton and in 1959 followed her as music director at Highlander. He taught it at a “Singing in the Movement” workshop and then at the organizing meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

The tradition of holding hands with crossed arms and swaying as people sang was started at the SNCC meeting. In 1963, Seeger recorded the song at his Carnegie Hall concert, and the anthem quickly circled the world. The creation and spread of We Shall Overcome was a typical Pete Seeger experience: a bit of tradition; a contribution from this person and that; and an adaptation for a contemporary setting so anyone could sing it.

Seeger was born to professional musician parents trained in European classical traditions. His mother left musical instruments around the house for him to pick up and explore. He learned by feel and ear before he knew technical terms. As a college student, he fell in love with the 5-string banjo, and eventually wrote the classic guidebook on how to play it. One of his first jobs was with the Archives of American Folk Music, which led him to find and learn from legendary musicians like Leadbelly.

In 1940, at a migrant-worker benefit concert, he met Woody Guthrie, one of the most prolific American folk-song writers. Seeger, Lee Hayes and, later, Guthrie formed the Almanac Singers with some other musicians. The Almanac Singers played for union rallies and in support of strikes. In 1948, Seeger and three friends formed the Weavers, the group that helped to launch the folk music revival nationwide—but Seeger never left his activist roots.

A year later, in 1949, he sang with Paul Robeson at a union concert as an “inoculation against fascism.” The Ku Klux Klan targeted the concert and stoned thousands of cars. As Seeger drove away from the concert with his wife and children, anti-union vigilantes attacked their car as well. Large rocks shattered the windows, sending glass shards into their hair and clothes.

Seeger had joined the Communist Party in the 1940s in support of workers’ rights and the Communist vision of an equitable world. At the same time, he served a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, mostly entertaining the troops. He left the Communist Party after a few years, but his involvement became a national issue when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) launched its investigation in 1955. Seeger appeared before the committee and defended his rights from the First Amendment—freedom of speech and association. He recalled the old German song, “Die Gedanken Sind Frei,” (“My thoughts are free.”) and he refused to directly answer the committee’s questions. This led to a citation of contempt and a sentence to a year in prison. His conviction was later overturned, but the HUAC hearings left Seeger blacklisted.

As a result, he turned to what he called “guerrilla cultural tactics.” He would show up in a town with no advance publicity for a concert. First, he would play on a local radio station, then he would invite people to a concert that night. He would be on the road again before protests could be mobilized against him. During the civil rights movement and the growing anti-war movement in the 1960s, he became a popular singer. He had earned the respect of many for standing up for his principles in the face of threats of imprisonment and violence. While marching alongside them, he also challenged the generational divisiveness of young radicals, even recording a song, Be Kind to Your Parents. By the 1970s, Seeger had become a beloved musical figure from coast to coast.

Seeger and his wife Toshi had purchased land and built a log house on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River in New York. In 1969 they helped start an organization that built a replica of an old sailing sloop, which the organization voted to call “Clearwater.” Using the “Clearwater” as a platform, Seeger took the lead in a movement of environmental cleanup of the Hudson. Environmentalism became a frequent theme in his concerts.

The soundtrack to so many memories of this era includes Seeger’s music. In 1940 he wrote If I Had a Hammer with Lee Hayes of the Almanac Singers—over 20 years before Peter, Paul and Mary turned it into a big hit. Where Have All the Flowers Gone didn’t begin as a peace song. Seeger got the first three verses from a Ukrainian “short” song. Joe Hickerson took it to a children’s camp where the kids and Hickerson played with it, adding verses about soldiers and graveyards. Kids took the song home from camp and shared it with friends. Eventually Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio picked it up, assuming it was a traditional folk song. Turn, Turn, Turn was Seeger’s musical rendering of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes, with the added ending “…a time of peace, I swear it’s not too late.” (Rabbi Bob Alper’s new book, Thanks. I needed that. is organized around that same biblical passage.)

Seeger popularized the poetry of the Cuban visionary José Martí, setting it to the music of Fernandez Diaz’s Guantanamera. Seeger also put music to “Estadio Chile,” the poem written by Victor Jara just before he was executed. Everyone who attended a Pete Seeger concert was expected to sing. Most of his songs, whether written by him or passed on through him, were not meant for performance, but for participation. “My basic philosophy in life is that I’m a teacher, trying to teach people to participate,” Seeger said, “whether it’s banjos or guitars or politics or whatever.” His songs were not just for concert halls, coffee houses and record players. They were for streets, union halls and jail cells. He didn’t expect his songs to be played on the radio: “If it’s a real good song, it will get spread around anyway.”

Seeger said in an interview, “When newspaper reporters ask me what effect my songs have, I try and make a brave reply—but I am really not so certain.”

Anyone who has marched in the streets for peace knows the effect. Seeger’s songs have been on the lips of people who have never heard his name, yet still draw from his music the courage to march and to hope for a brighter future. As he approached his 80th birthday, Seeger wrote these words:

And I’m still searching Yes, I’m still searching
For a way we all can learn To build a world
Where we all can share.

Care to learn more?

Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers.

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