Thoughts on How to Honor Pete Seeger’s Life
Every image of Pete Seeger that’s been playing on a reel in my head today – and on videos that seem to be crowding the social media sphere as millions mourn the end of his incredible life – has Pete behind a microphone, looking away, his mouth still shaping the words, but the sound is coming from the dark expanse in front of him. It’s a fitting image – the voice of the crowd creating a noise that appears to be emerging from Pete’s own mouth. His life’s work, after all, was getting people to sing together. At the end of his life, Pete’s performances were, more than ever, drawing out the voice of the crowd.
People always went to Pete Seeger performances knowing that they would themselves be a vehicle for his songs to the same extent, if not to an even greater extent, than the banjo he toted with him for decades. The one whose body was spanned by the words, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
Every Pete Seeger performance felt a little bit like a freedom march, with the words on that banjo as the banner that led the march down the street. And Seeger spent countless hours marching. He was marching for labor unions, then for civil rights. He marched for the day there would be an end to war, and for the cleaning up of the environment. Two years ago, at the age of 92, he marched from Columbus Circle, down through Manhattan, with two canes and a corral of choristers, singing “This Little Light of Mine”, against the darkness of what’s become known as the power of the one-percent.
It’s taken me much of the day to decide if and what else I had to say about Pete Seeger for this website. I trust that this is a space where I can simply deliver my thoughts and, hopefully, start a discussion. So, in the interest of starting the right discussion, I’ve been holding back, ruminating on his extraordinary life. As much as he’d probably bristle at the notion – he was the first to admit he wasn’t a saint – Seeger was, to me, a hero. I never met him, never even saw him perform in person. (How did that happen?) But it didn’t matter. His work long ago reached into my heart and took hold.
Much can and has already been said about the man himself. (David King Dunaway wrote an outstanding book to that end, titled How Can I Keep From Singing?) But, as with many aritsts who reach a sort of iconic status in their lifetimes, Pete’s celebrity was much more about all of us than it was about him.
There is no question that he was an incredible musician. There are countless banjo pickers around the country who would never have gotten very far without his instructional book for the five-string banjo. He was a hell of a picker. And, once he got the crowd singing the primary melody, he could unleash a powerful harmony that sounded like a freight train rolled in.
But that’s never what his work was about. That’s not why he was in music, or why he wrote songs, or performed, or persevered through blacklisting and beyond. Seeger’s career was built on getting us to sing. He never liked commercialization and never appreciated being a commercially successful artist. But he used the bigger microphone and larger platform he got, to get more and more people to sing.
It’s been easier today than on other days for me to step back and listen to the chatter on social media and elsewhere. Everyone has been adding their voice to the choir of those mourning the loss. But what happens in mourning when you join in the choir, is that it turns into a celebration. Pete knew this perhaps better than the rest of us. He knew that you cannot cry and sing at the same time. You cannot be crippled by fear when you’re singing; not when the person to your left and the one to your right, the one in front and the one behind, are all singing with you. Whether you’re all singing the same note or not, there is something that is transformative. Studies have been done, showing that people who sing in groups together develop the same heartbeat rhythm.
Besides, harmony is the musical way of saying, “We can believe different things and work together at the same time.”
I have witnessed this many times myself. In the past year, I’ve found myself leading the singing at demonstrations with the Campaign for Southern Equality here in North Carolina. It’s not anything I had ever done before, but I found the impulse to lead the singing was quite natural. And, once I got the crowd to trust me the first time, they were able to hear themselves striking a three-part harmony that made the entire gathering sound like they had practiced singing together every week.
There is a magical thing that happens when people sing together. They always sound better than one person singing alone, just as a gathering of people standing up for a common purpose is almost always more powerful than a single person standing alone. Singing phrases about letting light shine and overcoming and not being afraid, remind us these are universal experiences, as true to those we oppose as they are to our friends. Pete knew these things, he experienced them over and over throughout his life, at every concert and picket line, classroom and rally he ever attended. By the end of his life, the music ringing in his ears must have been such a powerful collection of voices from around the world, the no-doubt millions of voices who found their way to a song because Pete Seeger led them there.
Contrary to what his detractors maintained for a time in his career, he was never aiming at dividing anything. Pete wanted everyone in the room to sing. He knew that a refrain like “We Shall Overcome” was non-partisan. It transcended the confines of religion and politics and all ideologies except for humanism. The songs he chose spoke about no specific event or way of looking at it. They only asked us to declare, out loud, in harmony with our neighbor, that we’re in this together. For better or worse, every struggle is our struggle all together. We may as well love and respect each other, and find a way through it together.
So, I’ve decided, it’s difficult to be too deeply sad for the life Pete Seeger left behind last night. After all, he spent each breath blowing wind into the sails of peace and common understanding. His songs were our songs. Anyone wishing to honor him would do best to use their voice not to silence anyone ever but, instead, to join the choir.