I’m not one for hero worship & I don't have much use for the U.S. cult of celebrity, which makes everyone from newscasters to athletes to movie stars to politicians into larger than life figures, as well as the fascination with celebrities’ deaths that frequently captivate the internet. But I do think heroism is possible, & that a person can indeed hold steadfast to his or her ideals even when all instincts for self-preservation may tell them to do otherwise. & such a man was Pete Seeger, who passed away tonight at the age of 94 years young. & in related news, I believe this man’s passing is worth memorializing.
Pete Seeger taught us many things—the power of song—that is of voices rising up in song, not as a single pop star on the stage singing to his audience, but as a singer who believed every song was an opportunity for a sing-along. Of course, the real lesson here is cooperation—working together toward a common goal & a common good, not in a zero sum game of winners & losers.
Along the way, Pete Seeger faced the HUAC, a blacklist, FBI investigations, & maintained his course. He said in an interview once that he always believed things would be set right, because he always believed in America. Remarkable that a man could react with equanimity toward a country that was, through the force of its governmental institutions, seeking to destroy him. But that is why no less of an American icon than Johnny Cash, who bucked the blacklist & asked Seeger to appear on his 1960s TV show during the height of the Viet Name war, could call Seeger one of the most patriotic men he ever knew.
Pete Seeger was an optimist—her took the Woody Guthrie slogan of “This Machine Kills Fascists,” taken from machine shops involved in the World War II effort & stamped on his guitar, to the much transformed “This Machine Surrounds Hate & Forces It To Surrender,” lettered around the rim of his banjo. Remarkable. Pete Seeger taught us how to play the banjo, but he taught us so much more, if we are willing to open our hearts & minds to it—simple lessons, because the most basic.
It’s easy to say Pete Seeger will be missed, & of course he will be; what a unique voice & force he has been for so many years, a man who in many ways embodied our best angels in his public persona & also in refusing to be broken. It’s just that he was celebrated in later life by the celebrity musicians of our own day, & it’s to be hoped that he passed on his message to them. But more than that, Seeger’s life is a life to be celebrated—perhaps the best way to do so is to put his lessons to practice in small ways. It seems to me that Pete Seeger was always singing with a political soul (in the best & etymological sense of the word "political"), whether he was entertaining us with "Skip to My Lou" or lifting our spirits with "We Shall Overcome."
Image of Pete Seeger’s banjo links to its source on the woodshed. The image is found on many sites across the internet.