Well, Pete Seeger died last week. And when giants like Pete Seeger die, there is an overwhelming flood of story and tribute that comes in. I haven’t even scratched the surface of it, but here is one of the best retrospectives I’ve found. That will serve as an excellent introduction to this man.
I was raised on Pete Seeger. My dad had a bunch of Weavers records and he used to strum Seeger and Hays songs. My musical upbringing and subsequent love and practice of folk music was directly attributable to Pete Seeger’s compelling hold on my father’s own desire to make music. “If I Had a Hammer” might have been one of the first songs I ever learned. “Abiyoyo” was so emblazoned in my consciousness that we named a tall transmission tower near my grandparents’ cottage for that giant. “Little Boxes” described a future to be avoided at any cost.
I think many people who had just occasionally heard Pete’s folksy singing and storytelling had no idea of his fierce commitment to justice and his radical political beliefs. Here is an amazing transcript of his testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He did something in that hearing that was unprecendented: he refused to answer questions about his beliefs and his associations and his activities. He considered the entire exercise Un-American itself, and a violation of his basic human rights. For that he was sentenced to ten years in jail, and in 1962 he eventually had his case dismissed on appeal.
Pete Seeger stood as an important chronicler of the best of American life. He fought for the voiceless and stood with the oppressed around the world. He was the greatest friend of any truly just cause, and practiced his principles with shining integrity. And he wrote and preserved and disseminated the people’s music to embolden the people when all other sources of their inspiration had been taken away.