The great Pete Seeger has died at the age of 94. For an extensive obituary, I direct you to the one in the New York Times.
I grew up on folk music — the activist folkies of the 60s like The Chad Mitchell Trio, the fun-loving Limeliters, the popular Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary — as my mother was an unrepentant ex-Beatnik at the time.
Also around the old Hi-Fi were pressings of Dave Van Ronk and the New Christy Minstrels and Gibson and Camp and an old scratchy album by some group called The Weavers.
I liked the way they sang “Erie Canal” — Ear-eye-Ae — I thought it was funny. I also liked the four-part mix of Fred Hellerman, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and the soaring tenor of Pete Seeger; it was so different from the smooth, Milt Okun-arranged blend of the Mitchell Trio.
Later on, I have a hazy memory of seeing Pete sing “Big Muddy” on the Smothers Brothers show. I didn’t get it. I was too young.
I get it now. It’s an amazing, powerful song, like so much of Pete Seeger’s music.
Pete Seeger did more than sing. He walked the walk. Thanks to Pete and the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater one of our great rivers is cleaner now than it was fifty years ago — and more people understand the importance of environmentalism. People of all stripes understand the importance of coalition building and the meaning of “we shall overcome.”
In 2012, on an incredibly hot day in Bryant Park in New York City, I got to hear Pete speak. At age 92, he was completely in command and left me, and the rest of the crowd, in awe.
Stenciled on Woody Guthrie’s banjo was “this machine kills fascists.” On Pete Seeger’s: “this machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Pete Seeger knew, perhaps more than anyone else, that when you are singing together, you cannot wage war, oppress people, mistreat animals or pollute the world’s waterways simultaneously.
So often, we find ourselves “neck deep in the big muddy” while “the big fool [says] to push on” but Pete Seeger’s legacy is that we have to have the courage to turn back, to do what’s right, to stand up for those who do not have a voice, to surround the hate and force the surrender.