From my earliest memories, there’s Pete Seeger. In the wake of his death, all kinds of robust tributes and complete obituaries filling the media. I don’t know all the details of his life, but I can share some of the points in my life when Pete Seeger motivated and inspired me.
Sometime in the ’50s, my introduction to Pete Seeger. My parents took me to a concert in support of SANE (an organization that opposed nuclear weapons proliferation). I was too young to remember the venue: perhaps Town Hall in NYC. I would understand later that my father loved Pete Seeger because their lives shared common points of experience.
During the 1930s, so many well-meaning progressive young people had joined or worked with the Communist Party. Most came to reject that Party because the words and idealism promoted by the Party did not match the actions.
Pete Seeger and my father were both (albeit briefly) members of the Party in the 1930s. I know both were motivated by a desire to help those suffering most deeply because of the Depression. Both were motivated by a desire to see the poor earn a living, the powerless find justice, and the world afford all people the same human rights.
Both Pete Seeger and my father were blacklisted during the McCarthy era. This was so much a part of my childhood that I am inclined to conflate into my sense of family all who resisted the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Pete, in my memory, was an uncle or at least close family friend. Neither was true, but that’s the way it felt when I was a kid.
Around 1960, as a young teenager, I attended another concert, this one outside on Martha’s Vineyard where my parents rented a house for a few weeks each summer. Under the tent, in a picturesque and middle class northern setting, he lit the fire in me to do something about all of those young black people struggling for civil rights in Mississippi and Alabama. In 1963, I joined the tens of thousands who gathered on the mall in Washington, DC to support that struggle for civil rights and to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. give his iconic “I have a dream” speech. Pete Seeger, of course, was there.
Either just before or just after that march, I attended a Pete Seeger concert in Carnegie Hall and he turned the stage over to a young artist I had seen perform in a Greenwich Village cafe. The young man sang, “The Times They Are A’ Changing” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Seeger and Dylan joined forces on one of the standards of the folk repertoire (can’t remember what that was). Within the week I had purchased Bob Dylan’s first album.
In 1965, with the voice of Seeger in my mind’s ear, I joined the Selma march in Alabama. Again, I don’t remember if Pete Seeger joined us for the conclusion in Montgomery, but if he wasn’t there in person, I know wherever he was he was singing and talking about the work going on across the south to secure equal rights and justice for people of all colors.
During the ’60s, whether working for civil rights or questioning the war in Vietnam, Seeger was a presence on my landscape. The standard-bearer.
In the ’70s, as so many people did after the first Earth Day, I turned my attention to environmental concerns. I followed Pete Seeger’s work with the Clearwater and the effort to clean up the mighty Hudson River.
For all of his presence in my life, I never met Pete Seeger until he performed with his grandson at the Adirondack Museum in 2000. NCPR was a co-sponsor of the event and I was emcee. I found myself awestruck. I shook his hand, thanked him for being in Blue Mountain Lake, for his life’s work, and, no doubt as thousands of other people had through the years, told him what a key role he had played in my life. What makes me happiest when I think about that day is that my 14 year old son was there and vividly remembers the occasion. Indeed, boasts that he met Pete Seeger.
That’s what Seeger was all about: offering a different role model for youngsters, a role model with heart and depth beyond the icons of popular culture and politics, a role model who worked for peace and justice and human understanding and communication. Whether you agreed with all of Pete Seeger’s political ideas–and most people in the US would see themselves as far to the right of those ideas–I think we embrace him as a national treasure because the commitment to human dignity and the well-being of our planet is not about party politics.
I can sound pretty sentimental writing about Pete Seeger. But the Pete Seeger I remember was not sentimental. He was strong, courageous, and asked the most of himself, with the expectation that other people would do the same. From those early days of SANE rallies, what Seeger was saying was, “I’m doing this. I’m not exceptional. You can do it, too.”
I’ve been trying ever since.