I knew it would happen sooner rather than later. After all, he was 94 and increasingly frail. Still, I was very sad when I learned that Pete Seeger had died January 27.
Even though his career spanned more than seven decades, to me he always epitomized the 1960s, the era when I came of age. He was one of my personal heroes. From him I learned that music has the power to bring people together for good.
I met my best teenage friends at an art and music camp in Pennsylvania. Many of us were kind of misfits at our high schools, happy dorks when we were with each other. At our gatherings we didn’t listen to rock n’ roll, we sang folk music, often while one or more of us played guitar.
Our favorites included several songs written by Pete Seeger: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” (popularized by the Kingston Trio), “If I Had a Hammer,” (made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary) and “Turn, Turn, Turn,” (which became a No. 1 hit for the Byrds). Pete himself popularized “We Shall Overcome,” which originated with striking tobacco workers in the South and became the anthem of the civil rights movement. Pete sang everything from pro-labor and anti-war anthems to children’s songs to folk songs in a dozen languages. “My job is to show people there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right, it may help to save the planet,” he said.
Blacklisted by anti-Communists
From my lefty parents I learned that Pete had been a member of the Weavers, a quartet that led the folk music revival of the 1950s. I promptly bought a couple of LPs by the Weavers to complement my Pete Seeger records.
The Weavers’ career as a group tanked in the early 1950s during the McCarthyite anti-Communist witch hunts. After the Weavers broke up, Pete went out on his own. He played at folk festivals (including the granddaddy Newport Folk Festival, which he helped found), coffeehouses, union halls and college campuses, especially small, liberal schools like Reed, Oberlin and my alma mater, Antioch. He was the living embodiment of Antioch’s motto: Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.
Here’s an excellent obituary of Pete from Huffington Post. From another great obit, this one in the New York Times, I was shocked to learn that “Hootenanny,” a television show that featured folk singers, refused to allow Pete to appear on the program.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I loved “Hootenanny.” Once I made a poor date sit in my living room for a half hour before going out so I could catch Chad Mitchell’s appearance on the show. Because of the network’s mistreatment of Pete, many other performers – including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary – boycotted the show. If I had known all this at the age of 15, I would have boycotted it too! “Hootenanny” finally offered to let Pete on the show if he signed a loyalty oath; he refused.
A hero for a generation
I’m far from alone in my generation in my admiration of Pete Seeger. I asked friends for their thoughts and theirs echoed mine.
“In my parents’ house we had all the Weavers albums, we knew all the songs,” said Nancy Federman Kaplan of West Bloomfield, Mich. “He and his fellow Weavers were heroes to us for their steadfast commitment to principles of racial and economic justice, which got them into hot water with ‘The Government’ (the House Un-American Activities Committee – how many people remember what that was?),” she said.
Mike Corbin of Huntington Woods, Mich. remembers attending a concert with Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie in Detroit in 1969. George Crockett, a Recorder’s Court judge, was in the audience. He had just released a group of 150 black people, including juveniles, who had been arrested after someone shot a police officer and ran into the church where they had been meeting.
“Pete introduced the judge and led the audience in a truly rousing rendition of ‘We Shall Overcome,’” he said. “Then people danced the ‘Ring Around the Rosy Rag’ in the park across the street. What a night!”
Pete always engaged the audience like that. This video is a good example – it’s from a concert in honor of his 90th birthday at Madison Square Garden. Everyone in the hall joined in as he and his folksinger friends sang the wonderful Woody Guthrie anthem, “This Land is Your Land.”
Jo Ann Dollard of Chicago also became a Pete Seeger fan as a teen but says she came to appreciate him more as an adult and to understand the meaning of his music on a deeper level.
“He felt the music and he lived social justice and combined the two like no one else,” she said. “I felt inspired by his boundless energy, integrity, intelligence, strength, courage and all-out joy. He inspired me to become more engaged with caring, with making the world better and with life itself.”
Pete touched people across a wide spectrum, including many who never in a million years would describe themselves as politically left-wing.
“His folk songs gave us strength, hope, and assurance that we could stand up and be counted for the good, the just, the free. We truly could love one another in a way that changes everything in us and in our land,” said John Elmore of Grand Rapids, Mich., who is on the more conservative side.
As John points out, the 1960s were not only roiled by the Vietnam War, but racial and gender discrimination were the norm. The youth of America wanted something better.
“The line in Pete’s song ‘If I Had a Hammer’ that always hit me, choked me up, was ‘It’s the hammer of Justice, it’s the bell of Freedom, it’s the song about Love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land.’” said John. “We sang this in our church youth group and we meant the words we sang. “We of that generation carry those words in our hearts and hope and pray and continue to work for this ideal today.”
A champion for clean water
Nancy Kaplan also cited Pete’s campaign for clean water. In the late 1960s he built a 106-foot sloop, the Clearwater, and sailed it up and down the Hudson River. He started a nonprofit environmental organization, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.
After decades of litigation, General Electric in 2009 finally began to dredge sediment containing pollutant PCBs that it had dumped into the Hudson. Thanks, Pete!
Folksinger extraordinaire, champion of the oppressed, anti-war activist, advocate for the planet…if anyone can rest in peace, knowing he left the world a better place, it’s Pete Seeger.
A recipe from the ’60s
As part of my nostalgic look back to the 1960s, here is a recipe for Ambrosia Salad, which was very popular at that time. In fact, Cool Whip, probably the world’s first fake whipped cream, first appeared in 1967. I doubt I would make it today, when we’re all trying to eat healthy – but I might serve it at a Sixties theme party or as a treat for my granddaughter (if her health-nut parents aren’t around). This recipe comes from a blog called Brown Eyed Baker (which also provided the Lebkuchen recipe I posted a couple of months ago).