In a time when pop stars are most known for their silly haircuts, salacious outfits and fleeting half-lives, it is almost impossible to comprehend Pete Seeger, the legendary folk icon who died yesterday at age 94. Seeger was a giant of a human being, a man who insisted upon living humbly but with conviction and courage.
His commitment to the public good was aching to behold. When Congress asked him to name names in the 1950s, he refused and was blacklisted. Undeterred, he toured colleges and coffee houses around the country to make a living. When his beleaguered former singing partners the Weavers endorsed Lucky Strike cigarettes, presumably to pick up a few bucks, he refused. When he returned to network television in the late 1960s to sing on the “Smothers’ Brothers” variety show, he choose to sing a provocative song, “The Big Muddy,” lambasting the Vietnam War and LBJ – hardly the kind of song to revive his career.
And yet, Seeger was no dour nay-sayer or small-minded zealot. He was joyful, generous and optimistic. He lived his confidence in the power of song to bring people together, beyond politics. Through his person and the songs he wrote, Seeger’s music came to define the American experience during the civil rights era, the Vietnam War, the environmental movement, and beyond. It’s hard to imagine the past fifty years without If I Had a Hammer; Where Have All the Flowers Gone?; Turn, Turn, Turn; The Lion Sleeps Tonight; We Shall Overcome; and many other Seeger songs.
His determination to nurture wholesome action in the face of abusive power was also a wonder. From fighting fascism and the Klan to empowering ordinary people to become active citizens, Seeger did not let up. One of his great inspirations was the Hudson River Clearwater Sloop, which exposed thousands of people to the joys of that river – and the pollution that was endangering it. He showed up at protests and strikes and at community centers and schools. How many performers and activists keep at it for more than 70 years without stopping?