Remembering Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger

Two things came together for me this week. I was mulling over the Micah 6:8 passage we were planning to use for our worship service, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” I was sipping my coffee and reading the Washington Post before heading to the church office. On the front page was a news article that Pete Seeger died at age 94. I found myself reminiscing about him and his music.

I’ve been a long-time Pete Seeger fan. He was one of a kind. Few people better exemplify the virtues described in Micah 6:8. His longtime friend Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary, says Pete was the most humble person he has known. For him, it was always more about the song than about the performer. And he was always willing to help younger musicians.

Pete had a clear tenor voice and many of his songs have become icons of American culture. He gathered folk songs from all over the country. He learned from earlier musicians, especially blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, and folk singer Woody Guthrie. He borrowed some of their songs and changed them a bit. For him a song was never a finished product. Instead, they evolve to fit the times.

Pete dropped out of college when he failed an exam in his sophomore year and lost his scholarship. He then wandered around the country, often hopping on boxcars and riding the rails. He took his watercolors along and sometime painted a rural farmhouse in exchange for a meal. He took up the five-string banjo and played in a band with Woody Guthrie. He and some friends formed a group called the Weavers.

Their song “Goodnight Irene,” borrowed from Lead Belly, became a hit and was on the bestseller list for 25 weeks in 1950. We generally think of Pete as an activist and protest singer. We, however, can’t forget his songs, such as “Goodnight Irene, about the stuff of life including broken marriages and suicidal impulses. Folk singers are often better at meeting people at this place than pastors and churches are.

The Weavers’ success was short-lived. This was the McCarthy era of witch hunts to weed out any suspected Communist influence in government, labor unions, and Hollywood. Several of the Weavers, including Pete Seeger, were accused of having Communist sympathies. The group was blacklisted and completely dropped by television and commercial music publishers.

The following decades were among the most productive in his life. He had never aspired to commercial success. Instead he toured the country performing in union halls, churches, civil rights events, and local music festivals. He adapted “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” from a traditional Russian folk song lamenting the folly of war. It, along with his original composition, “If I Had a Hammer,” became popular as sung by Peter, Paul and Mary. Both were widespread protest songs during the Vietnam War.

The best known Pete Seeger song is “We Shall Overcome.” Like many of his songs, it has convoluted roots. It’s based on an old gospel song that striking tobacco workers sang on the picket line in South Carolina. A slower version was sung at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee that Rosa Parks attended in 1955. Seeger slightly changed the title from “We Will Overcome,” added verses, and picked up the tempo. It became the theme song of the Civil Rights movement.

Pete Seeger was a self-effacing, eternal optimist, yet there was a steely quality to this humble man. He made headlines when he joined the Occupy Wall Street demonstration several years ago. An even more telling story is that someone spotted a tall, lanky man standing by the road not far from his home on the Hudson River, holding a sign one rainy morning. People were honking their horns and shouting their support. It was Pete Seeger and the handmade sign he was holding simply said “Peace.” He was having fun.

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