Pete Seeger turns 92 today. A lot of people wanted him dead half a century ago but he kept on strumming his banjo.
Besides the banjo, Pete is known as a champion for migrant workers, the labor movement in general (our governor is not likely a Pete Seeger fan), civil rights, the anti-war movement, the environment (remember the Clearwater sailing on the Hudson?) and, well, music.
Pete always said that he believed music could help change the world. “How can I keep from singing?” he keeps asking. And he won’t quit strumming his banjo.
He distanced himself from the Communist affiliation of his younger years but never quite renounced it, apparently believing it to be nobody’s business. In 1955, when the House Committee on Un-American Activities (under the influence of Senator Joseph McCarthy) investigated him and many others Pete refused to invoke the Fifth Amendment or to respond in any manner other than to frustrate his interrogators, insisting on his First Amendment rights: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” For that he was found in contempt of Congress, in contempt of court, and eventually was sentenced to prison, which an appeals court overturned.
And he kept on singing—through the Korean War, the Viet Nam War, the Gulf War(s) and today. One of the first anti-war songs I ever learned was “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and at age 12 I wasn’t really aware what it was about, even though Viet Nam was in the news increasingly . I simply knew that it had a great melody and that the lyrics came full circle.
Pete has never sounded angry or beligerent with his music, no matter how angry he may feel. And his concerts become sing-alongs, getting audiences of all ages involved with the music on whatever level they can understand. Downright subversive.
From the political low of his blacklisting by the McCarthyites (our government’s low, not Pete’s) he has risen to being recognized as the national resource and the patriot that he is, with his performance at the inauguration of President Obama. The honor was more the president’s, and I think Obama would agree with that.
Next? How about the Nobel Peace Prize? Come on, guys.
Here are a couple of tunes typical of Pete: The first, “The Banks Are Made of Marble” is a workers’ rights song (again: Governor LePage not likely a fan) and it gained a lot more attention after the Bank Crash of 2008. Simple tune, repetitive theme, easy lyrics. Anybody can do this music, and that’s part of what Pete’s all about.
The second is his well-known “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Sing along with it and then look for this on YouTube by other artists as well. It won’t go away so you may as well join in.