Pete Seeger and me, an appreciation of an American hero
Pete Seeger died last week, and it set me to reminiscing. He was one of my heroes – me and I don't know how many thousands of others whose lives he touched in ways great and small.
It seems to me he had a few qualities that distinguished him from the mass of performers, and public figures generally. He was utterly himself: there was nothing about him that was edited for public consumption. In the TV interviews I've seen, the books and articles I've read about him, and the public performances I've been to, he seemed always to be the same person.
And if he had been inclined to self-editing, surely he would have done so to avoid running afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which conducted the anti-Communist witch-hunt of the 1950s, and blacklisted him for some 17 years.
Second, he was personally modest. If he enjoyed performing, and he obviously did, it was never about him. It was about the music, the cause for which he was singing and about the audience. He believed deeply in the power of songs to unite people for social change.
Last, he seemed genuinely to love his audiences, and to have a great faith that they and the music together could accomplish great things. His life seems to have been about trying to bring other people to believe in that power.
My mother's brother first became infected with the fervor of the Folk Revival in the late 1950s, he told me, and picked up Seeger's instruction manual, “How to Play the 5-String Banjo.” I remember his wonderful playing and how he got my parents interested in the music Seeger and others were making popular. Tall, thin and prematurely balding, he reminded me of a younger version of Pete.
I wrote my uncle after Seeger's death and asked about his memories of the man and his music. He sent back this story:
“I did meet him once in person at an informal outdoor music fest in Norwalk, [Conn.], and after I had played a solo number, I was extremely flattered to have him ask me where I had 'learned to play the banjo like that?' (very kindly implying a favorable assessment of my certainly amateurish proficiency). 'Pete,' I said, 'the same place as everyone else across America during the last 10 years – from you.'”
For me, and I think for many of my generation and my parents', Pete Seeger epitomized gentleness in the face of fierce opposition and even hatred, incorruptible integrity, respect for all people struggling to live decent lives, confidence in the ultimate victory of justice and a deep joy in life.
As a film about him aired on the PBS “American Masters” series makes clear, others, especially his wife, Toshi, made it possible for Seeger to be who he was. And the film hints that his children may not have had the easiest growing up living in a homemade log cabin in Upstate New York with their father frequently away. No doubt those he inspired owe his family a debt of gratitude for what they gave up so the world could have a Pete Seeger.
It surely needed one, and still does -- someone to inspire us, not only with his songs and his presence, but by his example, to believe that together we can create the change we want to see in the world. That if we will stand together, not vilifying the other, but caring for one another, if we will persist in what we believe is right, we really shall overcome.
It's not as easy as singing a song; Seeger's life teaches us that, if our own lives don't. But his life also teaches us that the good we dream is possible.
Good night, Pete, and thanks for everything. May your voice ring out in heaven.