I woke up this morning to the sad news that Pete Seeger, America’s folk singer and man of peace, has died.
He was 94 years old, so we should be grateful that we had him with us for so long. He was a man whose presence was timeless and inspiring, and the truth is, we needed him. We need him still.
He was more than a singer/songwriter, although in his case that would have been enough. He was a man of courage, unafraid to face down fancy fools and demagogues. In the 1950s he was hauled before Joe McCarthy’s Red-scare witch-hunters and branded a communist–a brand he neither confirmed nor denied until much later, when he said he had been a communist for a time but dropped out. He never failed to remind those who asked that it was never illegal in this country to be a communist. The young ones were, as you might imagine, surprised to hear it.
He was jailed, blacklisted, and was sentenced to 10 years for contempt of Congress. (That last one was overturned, but he was able to retain the bragging rights.)
In 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He was famously uncooperative, citing the First Amendment (freedom of speech and association) instead of the Fifth (freedom from self-incrimination) when he refused to answer, because he believed there was nothing “incriminating” about knowing communists or being one. Clubs and TV shows canceled the Weavers’ bookings, their recording company voided their contract, and their records vanished from stores and radio airplay. Seeger was indicted for contempt of Congress, and sentenced to ten concurrent one-year terms in prison (a sentence he didn’t serve, as it was overturned on appeal). Seeger and his band were blacklisted, and for years worked only in tiny clubs willing to take the risk of hiring them.
Pete never failed to let us know he was one of us. His concerts became one big sing-along, where everyone joined in and became his back-up singers. (That could be because Pete himself said as a singer he made a pretty good song-writer, but his audiences loved it.)
We knew the words to his songs by heart and understood where the words came from. He cared about the least of us. He was a union man. He was a man of peace who would not submit.
Solidarity forever, Mr. Seeger. It was a privilege to be on this planet with you. You will live on. We’ll make sure of that.
Edited to add the link to Seeger’s “Old Devil Time”.
No storm nor fire can ever beat us down,
No wind that blows but carries us further on.
And you who fear, oh lovers, gather ’round
And we can rise and sing it one more time!
(Thanks to Tangly Cottage for the reminder. What a shame if I had missed it.)