When These Fingers Can Strum No Longer: A Farewell to Pete Seeger

One machine killed fascists, the other surrounded hate and forced it to surrender. Together, they were unstoppable. They taught the schoolchildren of America “This Land Is Your Land,” and didn’t seem too bothered by the fact that the songbooks omitted the most controversial verses. Pete introduced us to his friends Leadbelly, Jose Marti, and Joe Hill after they died. Not to mention Woody Guthrie, Malvina Reynolds, Tom Paxton, Elizabeth Cotten, Phil Ochs, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Len Chandler, his sister Peggy Seeger, his brother Mike, Joan Baez, and some guy named Robert Zimmerman while they all were alive.*

“That Seeger’s the youngest man I ever knew,” said Guthrie. Pete abandoned a straitlaced life of privilege to play banjo and sing back up for Woody when he was 20. Had he not done that, there’s no telling what people might write about him today. Pete was a student in the fullest sense, soaking in every bit of music, politics, and culture he could from everyone he met on the road. The person we’re celebrating today would have celebrated each of us if we met him. Of course, Pete met his fair share of political opposition while he was alive. When he faced the House Un-American Activities Committee, he declared, “I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life.”

Though he was a bit slow to criticize Stalin early on, he  wholeheartedly embraced the anarchist motto of “Think globally, act locally,” and shined his corner of the world by marching with early civil rights leaders, protesting the Vietnam War, and helping to clean up the Hudson River. While Seeger never declared himself an anarchist, he certainly was a people’s microphone. He amplified voices in backyards, theaters, barns, and television sets throughout his career. Contrary to popular belief, he never cut the cord at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and even said that the Byrds’ electric version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” was his favorite. His practice of getting the crowd to sing along with him brought us back to the ground from which the folk revival, rock and roll, funk, punk, hip hop, soul and so many others sprung up. Those genres are all people’s music, no matter what the record companies might tell you.

Music is a form of communication that predates language, the music has to carry on. Sure, Pete did copyright the songs that he wrote, but he mostly sang heartfelt human anthems. Gospel hymns, blues rags, work songs, peace songs, children’s songs, folk ballads, and just about anything he could think of. People will complain that a certain man who gave a State of the Union speech tonight got a Nobel Peace Prize and Pete never did, but peace isn’t about prizes, leave that to the warmongers and CEOs. The closest we might get to peace, hell, the closest we might get to Pete is to pick a song and sing even the first ten seconds of it. The frail warble of Pete’s last few performances will echo long after the shelf life of any piece of recorded music is over and done with. So will yours and so will mine, even if we don’t live to 94. It will echo long after we care that he supported Henry Wallace in the presidential election of 1948, that he sang a duet with Oscar The Grouch on Sesame Street, that he married a Japanese woman at a time when that was still an unthinkable taboo, or that he was, in fact, a member of the Communist Party. Socially, these things do matter, but if the human race is going to survive as Pete would want it to, we need every shaky, unsure voice to pipe up and sing. We need every bit of courage that gets caught in the chattering of our teeth, we need to lay down our swords and shields, we need to walk that lonesome valley by ourselves, we need to understand that what we do now, you and me, will affect eternity, we need to see that the winds mix the dust of every land, we need singing tomorrows. We need the Pete Seeger, the Woody Guthrie, the Nelson Mandela, the Martin Luther King, the Mahalia Jackson, and, most of all, the us in all of us. Who’s ready to sing?

2009 Dorothy And Lillian Gish Prize Special Outdoor Tribute

Copyright Getty Images


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