Goodbye, Pete Seeger!

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?

To contemporary ears, the folk scene is a bit too earnest and idealistic to be taken seriously.  You can hear that mocking edge in the Coen Brothers’ faux-folk film, Inside Llewyn Davis.  It just seems impossible to imagine that that young people in that long ago time would actually exhort “Give a damn!” and mean it. Seeger refused to buy into the idea of civic impotence and therefore never drifted into irony.  That’s the kind of unvarnished honesty that gave him staying power.  

I remember meeting Seeger in 2005, when he convened a small conference of folk singers to talk about copyright law in the time of Napster. I was shocked to discover how proprietarian so many of these famous folk singers were, perhaps because they had nothing to support themselves but their voices and their copyrights.  Yet I was also shocked to learn that they would grasp so tightly songs that were a gift outright from earlier generations.  Seeger wanted to at least have the conversation.

For himself, Seeger clearly understood that he stood on the shoulders of his predecessors.  His father had been a musicologist who studied folk music, and Pete grew up understanding how music belongs to communities of people, and cannot really be considered an ownable thing.  After adapting a song that was used in union picket lines, renaming it “We Shall Overcome,” Seeger was urged to copyright the song lest Hollywood or some record label did.  So he and a few buddies copyrighted “We Shall Overcome” – and then instructed that any revenues from the song should go to the Highlander Center, the famous training center in Tennessee for activists.  In effect he invented his own ad hoc trust for music, well before Creative Commons – his own jerry-rigged alternative to the proprietary dictates of copyright law.

I met Seeger when he was 85, and starting to fade.  But even though his voice was a bit ragged and his vigor was waning (he took time out from that folksingers’ conference by napping in the backseat of a car), Seeger insisted upon giving everything he had.  He showed up for the Occupy Wall Street protests, he sang at the Lincoln Memorial before Barack Obama’s Inauguration, and he lent his name to countless causes. He even eked out a short blurb for my 2005 book Brand Name Bullies, I am proud to report.

It hurts to lose someone who embodied so many powerful strands of American history and culture, someone who stood squarely for so many democratic virtues and who was just such a decent human being.  But your legacy is indelible in our memories, Pete, and your music and civic example will live on.  Thank you, thank you, and R.I.P.