Every generation there are a few great souls that rise up so full of the sap of life that their cup brims over and carries everyone around them along with it.
Pete Seeger is one of those great souls. Born in 1919, coming of age during the Great Depression and the American labor movement, he channeled his gift for moving others into his music, and became the voice of several generations of Americans restless with the status quo, searching for a better world.
I grew up with the songs of Pete and his soulmate Woody Guthrie, another bright flame who burned himself out after only 55 years on the planet, dying in 1967.
Pete, now 94 years old, has been steady and unwavering all these years, staying focused on social and environmental justice through all the ups and downs, through all the changes in leadership and the rise and fall of various organizations and movements.
In the iconic song about Joe Hill, the labor organizer framed on a murder charge and executed in 1915, the ghost of Joe comes back to the narrator in a dream, defiantly insisting that he “ain’t dead”:
And standing there as big as life
and smiling with his eyes.
Says Joe “What they can never kill
went on to organize,
went on to organize.”
From San Diego up to Maine,
in every mine and mill,
Where working men defend their rights,
it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill,
it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill!
Pete Seeger, still very much alive, is like Joe Hill in that his spirit seems to infuse every struggle for social justice.
During the Occupy Wall Street movement in Fall 2011, he was there in person, galvanizing a crowd after a concert to follow him in a spontaneous march down Fifth Avenue and join him in singing a heartfelt round of “We Shall Overcome.”
His Clearwater environmental organization has become a model in inspiring communities to clean up waterways all over the nation, and indeed the world.
Pete’s special gift is using music to inspire the best in people.
He doesn’t heckle, he doesn’t scold, he doesn’t scorn.
He just lifts up his head and his heart and seems to channel the love of the universe straight through his fingers and his vocal chords, irresistibly bringing everyone in range along with him.
At a benefit concert for WAMC, Northeast Public Radio on September 8 at the Paramount Theater in Peekskill, NY, Pete’s power to inspire was undiminished, though his age is finally beginning to catch up with him in terms of his physical strength.
Nevertheless, he was onstage for a full three-hour concert, with only a brief intermission, and the delight he took in the younger people accompanying him was palpable and infectious.
For Pete, music has never been a power trip; it’s always been about creating an open-hearted place for human spirits to mingle in search of justice and beauty.
He waved off the standing ovations he received from the audience, most of whom were his longtime admirers, now going gray themselves. He made it clear that what he had to offer was not about him, it was about the power of the music to make a positive difference in the world.
While Pete could easily have led the hall down nostalgia lane, singing all his old classics, instead he chose to give his musical partners of the day, Lorre Wyatt and Guy Davis, the chance to step in the spotlight and take a leadership role, and he took special delight in the youngsters who were singing along with him on stage.
Pete sang a new song by Lorre Wyatt, “Braving the Storm,” which honored change agents like Rachel Carson, Cesar Chavez and WAMC’s tireless Alan Chartock, the chorus acknowledging “You could have stayed safe and warm but you showed us the way, braving the storm—thank you for braving the storm….”
He also sang some old fighting favorites like “We Shall Overcome,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “Turn, Turn Turn,” his voice rising loud and strong in reminding us that “there’s a time for peace, I say it’s not too late.”
Focus on the positive, Pete seemed to be telling us—on what can be done, what should be done, what is being done to make our world a safer, saner, more loving place. Do the work together, joyfully, singing all the while. Have courage, be of good heart, and don’t be afraid to brave the storm, together.
Like Joe Hill, wherever people are working together for a better world, it’s there you’ll find Pete Seeger, in body and in spirit.
Thanks, Pete, for showing us the way all these years, and being a tremendously inspiring model of an elder who only grows more powerful, active and courageous with age. We’re with you in spirit too, always!