Remembering Pete Seeger

Mark Engler reflects on the life of an American musician, patriot and dissident.

Peter Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014) was an American folk singer and social activist. A fixture on nationwide radio in the 1940s, he also had a string of hit records during the early 1950s as a member of the Weavers, most notably their recording of Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene", which topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950. Members of the Weavers were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. In the 1960s, Seeger re-emerged on the public scene as a prominent singer of protest music in support of international disarmament, civil rights, counterculture, and environmental causes.

Five years ago, in January 2014, the US lost a great patriot, musician and internationalist when Pete Seeger died at the age of 94. In a time of resurgent and reactionary nationalism, I found myself reflecting on the five-string banjo picker’s example of how a deep love of country could be married to a thoroughgoing progressivism.

Some lives have the ability to capture the spirit of rapidly changing times, tracing the unsteady contours of political life. Pete Seeger had such a life.

Seeger joined Woody Guthrie to sing union songs on picket lines during the labour boom of the 1940s. He was red-baited and called before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the heyday of McCarthyism in the 1950s. In the 1960s he helped to make ‘We Shall Overcome’ the great anthem of the civil rights movement; he then joined anti-war protests singing: ‘Support our boys in Vietnam: bring ‘em home, bring ‘em home.’

Starting in the 1970s, before modern environmentalism had even taken shape, Seeger led a successful effort to clean New York’s Hudson River – singing from a ship called The Clearwater.

‘Some music helps you understand your troubles,’ Seeger said, ‘and some music helps you do something about your troubles.’ The musician gained unexpected fame in 1950 when his group, The Weavers, recorded a rendition of ‘Goodnight Irene’ which became a radio sensation. But the blacklist soon stifled his commercial career, keeping him off network television for 17 years.

Seeger, who was suspicious of celebrity anyway, responded by performing in schools, at camps and with marchers at demonstrations. He always contended that he’d rather have people join in song than listen idly to professionals. ‘Participation,’ he stated, ‘is what’s going to save the human race.’

The folk revival of the 1960s adopted Seeger’s inclusive ethos as its guiding principle. It also adopted his vast catalogue of tunes, which plumbed musical traditions from New England to Oklahoma.

Yet while Seeger rooted himself in this rich heritage, he also extended his political and musical solidarity across borders. In 1963, when air travel was both difficult and expensive, he travelled around the globe to document and share the folk songs of other cultures.

Throughout, he saw a common and liberating power. ‘When one person taps out a beat,’ he wrote, ‘or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.’

Even as later presidents praised him – Bill Clinton awarded the musician a prestigious Kennedy Center Honor and Seeger played at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration – he continued speaking out against his country’s military interventions in Central America, Iraq and beyond.

If there’s a vision of US patriotism that is redeemable, it must surely draw on Seeger’s insistence that it encompass both ardent dissent and robust internationalism. Of those who had once branded him as un-American for these beliefs, Springsteen put it best: ‘You outlasted the bastards!’