When I was growing up, I wanted to be Pete Seeger. I loved the songs, the harmonies he drew out of people, the banjo he played, the way he brought people together and got them singing. My mother made me tapes of some of his concert albums, and I listened to them over and over again. I learned every song. And when I sang, I used to look up into the air and shout out the high notes, just like he did. It was a real disappointment to me when my voice changed and I discovered I wasn’t a high tenor.
To be honest, I still want to grow up to be like Pete. Through the years I have learned as much from him – through music, writings, the example of his life, and the few conversations we shared – as from anyone else I can think of. Yes, he was a musical genius – I found that out the first time I sat next to him at a People’s Music Network Gathering and heard his impromptu harmonies and counterpoint – but he was also a deeply thoughtful, ethical man who made it his mission to bring people together. In his courageous testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he said,
I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody.
Pete attached every bit as much importance to a performance for a classroom full of children as he did to one at Carnegie Hall. He got people singing with each other and listening to each other, and he taught generations of us to do the same.
I won’t pretend that I knew him well. If the people who have mentored me in music are the children of Pete, I am a grandchild, influenced as much by the music he inspired in others as the songs he performed himself. In recent years I had the privilege of working with him on some projects, and through that work we shared a few conversations. Our interactions were almost all over the phone, and I always felt privileged if he called, or if I happened to reach him on a day when he felt like talking.
And oh, what conversations they were. I used to take notes, which is not something I would normally do – but there was so much wisdom in everything he said that I knew I didn’t want to let it slip away. He talked about community and the connections people of different cultures were able to make with each other, more and more across the world, and how much hope it gave him for the future. With typical modesty he never once mentioned that he was a pioneer in making those kinds of connections; I don’t think it even occurred to him. He said that if the human race survives another hundred years, it will have been the arts that saved us – music, visual art, theater, dance, and especially laughter. “If we can get the whole world laughing,” he told me, “we can move the world along.”
Pete was a Unitarian Universalist, and I’m sure he is one of the reasons I went into the UU ministry. It wasn’t anything he ever said to me – instead it was the lessons I learned listening to those records and singing his songs. I learned to care about ordinary people, to value freedom and justice, to work for what is right no matter how daunting it seems, to bring people together, to listen and value the voices of others. I learned to respect all people, no matter who they are and where they come from. I learned the value in a story.
Last week, my six year old son came back from school telling me they had talked about Pete Seeger and sung his songs. He knew some of the songs already, of course, and had often listened to the CD of Pete’s Children’s Concert at Town Hall, or some of the music that Pete helped to influence. Whatever direction his own life and music take as he grows up, he’ll be part of another generation touched by the musical and spiritual gifts Pete gave to us. And what a gift that is.
In an interview for BeliefNet a few years ago, Pete was asked if he thought there was an afterlife. He said,
Well, you might consider this. When Toshi and I had our first child who died when it was only six months old, I was in the army, my father wrote me and said, “I don’t think I could cheer you up in the usual way. But remember this, that something good that has happened can never be made to unhappen.” That’s a nice way of putting it, don’t you think? Something that has happened can never be made to unhappen.
Pete’s life was unquestionably good, and it can never be made to unhappen. Knowing that brings comfort and tears. They are good, healing tears, and when they are done, Pete will still be with us – in the ways we sing, the work we do for justice, the care we take of this old brown Earth, and the community we live with one another.
Rest in peace, Pete. Thank you.