This past week the iconic folk singer Pete Seeger has died. His life cannot be assessed without regard to what he did with his career; he defines the meaning of the word "activist," and served as a role model to countless other performers who used their talents to spread a message of love and peace.
His friends and co-performers included luminaries such as Joan Baez and Judy Collins, and he counted the likes of Woody Guthrie as his close friends. Guthrie's son Arlo continued the family association throughout Seeger's life and they both recorded Woody's songs, which included Seeger's signature, "This Land is Your Land," which he sang in its entirety at the first inauguration of President Barack Obama.
Seeger also wrote many of the defining songs of the Peace Movement, including, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Bring 'em Home," all of which everyone knows. If I can judge my the Sundays when I sing these songs at church, everyone feels free to sing along with Seeger the way we all did with the music of Bob Dylan, a man who was strongly influenced by Seeger and seems headed towards a career of comparable length.
Thus, Seeger's career cannot be separated from his life as an advocate for those who were not like himself--white, free and entitled to every opportunity that came his way. He appreciated that young black Americans do not enjoy the social mobility that I did, for example, in my younger days. He did not think it was okay for anyone, whether it was an individual, a government or a church to stand aside and permit oppression and discrimination. He wrote about it back before World War II with Woody Guthrie, when Guthrie turned out songs like "The Union Maid," which has a refrain that begins, "You can't scare me, I'm sticking to the Union."
Seeger was politically a communist for a time in his youth, but became disillusioned with it early on, as the corruption that can occur in a communist state began to appear in Eastern Europe. He stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee and beat them in court after they declared him to be in contempt of Congress. Most Americans were in contempt of Senator Joseph McCarthy, at least, so Seeger was in good company on that charge.
We saw something similar in the Nixon era, when an "enemies list" was leaked to the media regarding individuals who had been targeted for tax audits and dirty tricks back in the Seventies. One celebrity, actor Paul Newman, appeared on the list and his response was to make an Academy Awards-style acceptance speech when he was interviewed by reporters asking for his reaction.
Seeger was very young during the First World War, and before he "arrived" as an entertainer he had to wait until folk music became trendy in the Sixties. He always had a political slant to his activities, and he role-modeled that lifestyle for the more seriously-minded hippies who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement and then went on to oppose the war in Viet Nam. He did not claim to be the author of the anthem, "We Shall Overcome," but he sang it until it became the song that still brings tears to the eyes of former peace activists, much as the hymn, "Precious Lord," moves those who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I believe that there will be some repetitions of programs profiling Seeger, especially on Public Television, in the near future as they schedule them to mark his passing. A giant has fallen. The rest of us have to step up if we can, as America passes through another crisis that may lead to another social revolution. Two generations of stripping money out of the Treasury of the United States has left us struggling to survive on many levels, and I read the other day that a Huffington Post writer can't understand why there isn't any protest over income inequality and the restriction of voting rights.
I can understand it: people are Tweeting and blogging and posting their outrage on Facebook--because it is easier than trying to revive the Occupy Movement or take to the streets city by city. You can fool yourself into thinking that posting on your blog will satisfy your requirement for social action, but as soon as all the bloggers catch on that they are of no importance to rapacious capitalists who are buying and selling congressmen, it will become apparent that every day you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.
In case you are wondering, I was part of the solution in the Sixties. I lost jobs over the Movements, I was in the streets, and I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Chicago. I will go back into the streets if there is any sign that the American people have had enough Republicans and Teabaggers. Meanwhile, the great man has left us. Which of us lesser souls will lead now?