This morning, at the tail end of my workday, I heard the news of the death of American music legend Pete Seeger at the age of 94. Pete lived a longer, fuller life than just about anyone.
Pete Seeger was right, by which I mean Left, about just about everything- he was a tireless champion of environmentalism, an opponent of McCartyism, a labor organizer, an anti-war activist, and an advocate of equal rights when taking such positions involved considerable personal risk. If there was one thing he was wrong about, it was a naivete about the evils of Stalinism, which (of course) he came to see long before his critics would admit.
Locally, Seeger was instrumental in pushing for the cleanup of the Hudson River, building the Clearwater, a replica of the sloops which plied the Hudson before the era of steam. The Hudson's waters have improved to the point where bald eagles can thrive on the river and its tributaries, when not so long ago, the river ran the color of the industrial effluents which were dumped into it.
Musically, Pete took up the baton passed to him by the legendary Woody Guthrie, with whom he played in The Almanac Singers, among whose songs was the anti-Hitler song Dear Mr President, which also exhorted FDR to improve American society for black and Jewish Americans:
In the late 1940s, Pete was a co-founder of The Weavers (named after a play about the Silesian weavers' uprising). Among the most famous Seeger co-compositions of the Weavers period was If I Had a Hammer:
For a good overview of the Weavers' career, the documentary Wasn't That a Time? is indispensible:
The 50's were a particularly rough time for Seeger, who broke with the American communist movement when news of Stalin's enormities emerged, though this was not enough to keep him from being dragged in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Peter defied HUAC not by pleading protection under the Fifth Amendment, but under the First. From a 1985 interview with Terry Gross of NPR:
So in effect I was defending myself on the basis of the First Amendment. The Fifth Amendment in effect says you have no right to ask me this question. But the First Amendment in effect says you have no right to ask any American such questions.
Pete was held in contempt of Congress for his defiance and sentenced to a year in jail, but the charge was eventually dismissed, just in time for Pete to participate in the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Pete helped to popularize an adaptation of the gospel songs I'll Overcome Someday and If My Jesus Wills, which came to be known as We Shall Overcome:
In his later years, Seeger was a fixture at the Newport and Clearwater folk festivals, both of which were started by his wife Toshi, who died last year. A good friend of mine, a volunteer at my workplace with whom I have spent many a Sunday morning as my graveyard shift ends and his volunteer stint begins, was heavily involved with the Clearwater festival for years, and knew Seeger personally.
In a call-in to WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show this morning, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr related a story about Pete enlisting the aid of future Riverkeeper John Cronin in building a dock, likening Pete to St Francis of Assissi, exhorting Mr Cronin, "Follow me!"
Pete Seeger's music has insinuated itself into the DNA of America... here in a moving performance from last year, he notes that his voice may not be strong, but that the audience's voices are, as he leads them in a rendition of Turn! Turn! Turn!:
Pete Seeger was a national treasure, and particularly a local treasure. I'd mourn his passing, but he'll live on through his body of music and the legacy of his activism. Rest in the peace that you advocated, as Bruce put it, you outlasted the bastards.