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Appraising Pete Seeger

Forty-five years ago half a million baby boomers and others rallied in Washington, D.C. against the Vietnam War. Who led them in a rousing rendition of John Lennons new song, “Give Peace a Chance”—Pete Seeger.

Anti-war demonstrators surrounding the reflecting pool during a Washington, D.C. protest.
Anti-war demonstrators surrounding the reflecting pool during a Washington, D.C. protest.
Wikipedia
Pete Seeger encouraging the audience to sing.
Pete Seeger encouraging the audience to sing.
Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Here was a man everyone knew had been blacklisted for being an “uncooperative witness” before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. A man whose song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” had been censored on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” The same man who chided “Are you listening, Nixon?” after the President remarked “As far as this kind of activity is concerned, we expect it; however under no circumstances will I be affected whatever by it."

Of course, everybody in the crowd was elated by such audacity and anti-establishment fervor. They also felt naughty and a little bit scared. Perplexed, too. How could this slight man at the other end of the Washington Mall ever have wondered “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Or who sought brotherhood for everyone in “We Shall Overcome”? Or who gave every action biblical significance in “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Could any of us be as brave and eloquent defending our convictions if put to the test?

Perhaps not. Few of us got closer to defending our ideals than singing them that day on the Mall. Fewer still possessed sufficient “grace under pressure” when their convictions were challenged. The War ground on for another six years. Yet, the man whom President Barack Obama said was called “America’s tuning fork” continued supporting unpopular causes because he believed in them. Singer, composer, environmentalist, and activist, Pete Seeger continued to embody what everyone felt that day in November but later through fate, circumstance or personal weakness could not uphold.

His obituaries reveal him to be darker and more complex than the plucky troubadour he seemed in 1969. He never denounced communism. He defended Joseph Stalin long after that Soviet dictator’s cruelties were public record. He disapproved when Bob Dylan made folk music “come electric” at the Newport Folk Festival.

Mistakes accrue to anyone who wants the world to be a better place. Seeger’s lyrics touch boomers and millennials alike through their simple eloquence. His music encourages everyone to join the community by singing from the bottom of their hearts. For a moment they feel the same way those protesters did years ago in Washington—part of something bigger—a movement, an idea, a cause nobler and bigger than themselves. That is the legacy this Manhattan banjo picker leaves to the common man—one the rich and powerful can never hope to match.