Denial. That’s what I felt when I heard that Pete Seeger died in the waning hours of January 27. Pete Seeger can’t die. Pete, like your childhood home, was always supposed to be there. Forever. Pete reminded us we’re “just passing through,” but who believed that? We might die, but not Pete.
In 1994, Bill Clinton called Pete “an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them.” You can trust Slick Willie on that one. Whenever we thought we had life figured out, Pete inconveniently sang about a worthy cause we had overlooked. When Seeger believed in something, he didn’t ask whether it was practical to get involved. When I was in Vermont in the 1980s, some friends agreed to organize a benefit concert for Central American literacy projects. The first choice was Bob Marley, who wanted 10 grand up front, first-class everything, and a cut of the house—too rich for our blood.
We called Pete and he said, “Sure, I’ll be there.” A half hour later the phone rang. Pete wanted to know if it would be possible to reimburse him for gas! When told we intended to pay him, Pete had three demands: mail the check to his wife Toshi, don’t tell him the amount, and “make sure it’s not too much.”
Since the 1980s, I’ve written for the folk music publication SingOut! Magazine, which Pete cofounded in 1950, and for whom he has been a columnist, board member and benefactor. Because of that, and some folk music research I’ve done, I spoke with Pete on several occasions.
The first time I was so nonplussed I must have sounded like an idiot. Pete had been an idol since boyhood and idols speak to us, not with us. Pete hated that kind of reaction. A man of Spartan habits and a puritanical streak as wide as the Hudson, Pete loved working the crowd as a citizen within what John Dewey called the Great Community. SingOut! isn’t just the name of a music rag—it was the center of Pete’s worldview. If you didn’t know, the name is plucked from Seeger’s famed “If I Had a Hammer”: “I’ll sing out danger/ I’ll sing out a warning/ I’ll sing out the love between my brothers and my sisters/ all over this land.”
He meant that every way imaginable. I saw Pete in concert quite a few times, but I recall vividly a show he did at Mount Holyoke in 2002, when he was nearly 82. By his own admission, his voice was shot. So he did what he always did—regaled us with stories and made us do the singing. Has anyone ever warbled the descant between lines with Pete’s skill? Nope!
Seeger knew that singing alone wouldn’t change the world—that’s why you found him walking picket lines, marching with civil rights workers, hoisting the sails on a sloop in the name of ecology, and leaning on two canes to cheer on Occupy Wall Street protestors when he was 91. Call him a male Mother Jones or, perhaps, naive, but Pete thought it essential to sing out the dangers to American freedom. The man labeled a dangerous radical by his enemies was a patriot who happened to believe that kindness, not power, could change the world. When he traveled with Woody Guthrie in the 1940s, Woody’s guitar bore the slogan: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Tellingly, Seeger’s banjo bore the more genteel: “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender.”
Music scholars will assess his musical legacy–a hundred-plus albums, songs so intertwined in the American fabric that Pete’s authorship is often forgotten, and influence on everyone from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen and Ani DiFranco. Pete’s repertoire was filled with global offerings decades before anyone spoke of “world music.” He reinvented the banjo. Literally. He sawed the neck from an old Tubaphone and added three frets so he could sing in E instead of G. When Vega started selling copies, they rightly called it the Pete Seeger model. Seeger declined royalties, just as he insisted that royalties be paid to others when he found out that “Wimoweh” wasn’t a traditional song, and again when researchers unearthed a previously unknown co-author of “We Shall Overcome.” Who does that?
There’s a YouTube video floating about in which Pete shares a stage with Johnny Cash, and J.C. looks likes he’s seen God the Father. Dylan once dubbed Pete a “saint.”
Well, no… If anything, his death is faith-shaking. What divine plan allows Henry Kissinger and Anton Scalia to walk the planet when Pete doesn’t? Who will sing us through the machinations of present-day greed merchants and future demagogues? I know what Seeger would have said—it’s written in the chorus of “If I Had a Hammer.”•