Pete Seeger 1919-2014
Sometime in the early sixties my father took me to see Pete Seeger at the local High School. It was my first concert, and the first time I’d seen a banjo. What I remember most of that night is my father’s loud baritone as he sang along with Pete, “Oh you can’t scare me, I’m sticking with the union…until the day I die.” My father had real trouble expressing his emotions. It’s the thing that made him such a good writer. He wasn’t a great singer, but singing was another way he was able to express what he felt. We didn’t watch much TV in our house, but even if we wanted we couldn’t have seen him – he was still being blacklisted.
A couple of years later, a month and a day before JFK’s assassination my father took me to see Martin Luther King preach at Wesleyan University. I remember his booming voice – I’m sorry to say, clearer than Pete’s voice – but again what most brings back that night is the sound of my father singing along next to me – “We shall overcome some day.” I didn’t know that night that Pete Seeger was the reason we sang that song, the reason it became the anthem of the Civil Rights movement.
Later as the 60s went crazy and tore a rift between my father and me, I’d forget that the man who railed against long hair and loud music (and for a while anyway, the anti-war movement) had once stood up for the unions, and blacks, when it wasn’t easy. That he’d covered the Army-McCarthy hearings for the Baltimore Sun and stood up to the Senator from Illinois.
Pete was there at Newport when Dylan went electric, and though he never threatened to cut the wires with an ax, that apocryphal story lives on because it so neatly captures the rift among lefties wrought by another kind of ax – the electric guitar. My dad hated them, and I don’t think Pete ever liked them much.
A year or two after seeing Pete play that banjo I saw one next door at the house of the chairman of the Wesleyan music department. I pestered my mom to buy me a banjo, and she finally relented and got me an acoustic guitar, saying “Banjos are too weird.”
I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and got an electric guitar and played in a Beatle imitiation band, launching a career as a musician. I didn’t think to thank Pete, but he’s right there in the chain of events that led to my becoming a composer.
At a left wing camp in 1967, the Summer of Love, we proto-hippies sang “Where have all the flowers gone.” Just as “We Shall Overcome” symbolized Civil Rights, this song found its way into my heart as the best shorthand for my connection with the Peace Movement. Again, I didn’t know to thank Pete Seeger.
The closest I ever got to the Bible in my agnostic upbringing was my dad reading Luke on Christmas eve. When I heard the Byrds chiming Pete’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” over the radio, I fell in love with three-part harmony, and considering the source of the song, thought for the first time that maybe there was something to the Bible after all.
Pete Seeger “stuck with the union” until yesterday. He never gave up on the causes dear to him – peace, and cleaning up the Hudson River. He stood in the rain and snow and protested wars well into his nineties. I still don’t understand why they never gave him the Nobel Peace Prize.