It’s not always raw power, the threat of violence, or great wealth that change things. Sometimes it’s the “soft” side of human nature — sincerity, honesty, and humility, combined with a silly idea that life really can be better. That’s how Pete Seeger worked his magic.
Seeger, 94, died in his sleep Monday, leaving behind songs he wrote or co-wrote that we all know, as did our parents and even our grand parents — If I Had a Hammer, Turn Turn Turn, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, and Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.
Since the 1940s, his music melded with his politics. He and his banjo were part of the civil rights movement, the fight to help migrant workers, and to call attention to the horrors of war. He wasn’t a pacifist, he often said, and would have fought to protect U.S. soil. But he never stopped warning about adventurism overseas that put young American lives at risk.
Seeger, who dropped out of Harvard in 1938, was blacklisted in 1955 when the House Un-American Activities Committee named him a Communist. Even though he had renounced Communism five years earlier, he was banned from appearing on television, which back then was in the hands of just three networks. So for the next two decades, Seeger instead toured college campuses. He won millions of young fans with his cheerfulness, optimism, and always wonderful music.
As more decades passed, Seeger grew older but never old. His body stayed lean, his voice simple and pure, and his spirit as strong as ever. Eventually the college kids took over and gave Seeger the honors he always deserved.
In 1994 at the Kennedy Center, President Bill Clinton called him “an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them.” He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. He won a Grammy in 1997. In 2009, he celebrated his 90th birthday with a sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden.
President Obama Tuesday praised Seeger for his long work for civil rights, peace, and better conditions for unskilled laborers.
Seeger himself would have deflected the glory. He told the AP in 2011, “Be wary of great leaders. Hope that there are many, many small leaders.”
Most of us spend a lot of time talking about the bad things that happen in our world. It’s nice today to talk about one of the good things that happened — the life and work of Pete Seeger.
Richard L. Cassin is the Publisher and Editor of the FCPA Blog. He can be contacted here.