Although not a surprise—he was 94!—the death of folksinger/acitivist Pete Seeger saddens me.
For more years than I like to admit: Pete Seeger has been one of my heroes. If you don’t know his story, you can read a profile of Pete Seeger written by author Daniel Buttry (which includes a personal tribute from singer-songwriter David LaMotte) in the Interfaith Peacemakers section of this website.
In my own column, here, I want to talk about Pete on a personal level. I was in high school when recordings by Pete Seeger and Burl Ives introduced me to folk music, and through folk music made me aware that the Fifties were not all that the later TV show Happy Days made them out to be. Mr. Seeger’s involvement in the birth and spread of the civil rights movement made me aware of the racial divide in our country and of the possibility of overcoming it.
I also became aware during those “happy days” of the anti-Communist witch hunts that rabid Congressmen were conducting against Americans suspected of being even slightly “leftist.” I had rejoiced when the folk group Pete Seeger had helped found, called The Weavers, broke into the Top Ten with their hit Good Night, Irene, but with the Congressional witch hunters branding Pete and his friends “Communists,” their music soon disappeared from radio. It would not be until years later that Pete would be invited to sing on a TV program, and I am proud that it was one sponsored and produced by the National Council of Churches.
I eagerly bought the singer’s inspiring LP records. I had my first opportunity to hear him when fellow pastor Roger Smith and I journeyed to Jackson, MS, to join other “outside agitators” in The Mississippi Summer Freedom Project.
A HOT NIGHT IN A PACKED CHURCH
This black-and-white photo of Pete in a white shirt was taken on a sweltering night in an overcrowded church in Jackson as the folksinger entertained our troops in the movement. I cannot recall whether my friend Roger or I took this photo (we both took so many and exchanged them that summer), but it shows Pete still going strong at the microphone even though his shirt was soaked clear through and was clinging to him. Hot though it was, he kept playing and singing—or I should say, led all of us in singing. Those who knew him, of course, knew that he always saw himself as more of a catalyst to get people singing rather than as a solo performer. He went on for more than two hours.
No one left, or as far as we were concerned, even thought of leaving early.
He was loved by all of the Project participants for his courage as well as his music and advocacy of racial justice. Many other celebrities came to Jackson, which was good—but as far as I know, he was the only one who would go outside the city to some of the dangerous areas where the Klan ruled. Roger and I left early the next day to go to our assignment in Shaw (up in the Delta region), and throughout our almost three weeks engaged in teaching, advising, canvassing for voter registration, and transporting would-be voters to the courthouse, memories of his leading us in singing for freedom and justice kept ringing in our minds and hearts.
The only other time I heard and met him in person was years later at the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York where he stayed for a few days and presented a concert. I thanked him for his inspiring work through the years and hesitantly held out several of his albums for autographing, which he graciously did. These are cherished items, even though today I listen to the songs on digitally transferred copies.
As a fitting way to remember him I recommend that you get a copy of the wonderful documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song. Currently, Amazon streams the film, for a fee, and also sells it on DVD (that DVD listing has been saying that Amazon is out of stock, ever since Pete’s death, but more are on their way). And, you also can find the DVD on Netflix—and probably at your local library, as well. Even though I was familiar with some of the events of his long life, this reveals a wealth of additional stories that make me admire him all the more. My own upcoming book Blessed Are the Filmmakers, due out later this year, will contain a review and discussion guide for this film.
Let us thank God for the long and useful life of this wonderful man!