We visited a land of a thousand songs
Every garden many shades of green
Still they told us, after peace will come
Such colors then as you have never seen.
– Pete Seeger, “Land of a Thousand Songs”
It’s hard to know where to begin with Pete Seeger. I guess with the end . . . Pete Seeger has died at the age of 94. He’s been called “America’s conscience” and “the father of American folk music”; he was a great storyteller, renown banjo picker, environmental crusader, anti-war protester, collector of folk lore and songs, husband, father.
I had the pleasure of seeing Pete Seeger perform several times. One memorable concert was at the old Universal Amphitheater here in Los Angeles during the 1984 concert tour with Arlo Guthrie, Holly Near, and Ronnie Gilbert (one of the original Weavers). Pete believed in audience participation. No one was better at getting an audience on their feet and singing along than he was. He called this ability to rouse the audience his “cultural guerrilla tactic.”
At Pete’s 90th birthday celebration held at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden in 2009, Bruce Springsteen said,
At some point, Pete Seeger decided he’d be a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history. He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people, and despite Pete’s somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism. Inside him, he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade and it won’t let him take a step back from the things he believes in.”
Much of that was just Pete’s natural way of being. Some of it he learned from the man who was, along with Leadbelly, his mentor in music, and life, a certain Woodrow Wilson Guthrie from Oklahoma, a man the world knows as Woody. Woody’s music and his sense of what it means to be an American was, for me, one of the most notable causes Pete Seeger championed during his life. He was instrumental in keeping Woody’s songs alive. We should all be grateful for that, and remember as well, that Pete wrote, or co-wrote, some great songs himself. “If I Had a Hammer”, “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” will live forever.
That last song Pete adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Another song Pete adapted was an old gospel tune, “I’ll Overcome Someday”, by African-American composer Charles Albert Tindley. When Pete got through with it, the song was called “We Shall Overcome” and it became the anthem of the civil rights movement.
Pete was the epitome of ‘spiritual but not religious.’ He had a distrust for anything too organized, especially religion. In an interview from a few years back, he mentioned that he used to say “I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes.” Nature was probably the only church Pete regularly attended. He and his wife Toshi, who died last July, lived in the woods in upper New York state. For many years, their cabin had no electricity or running water. The couple had an appreciation for Eastern philosophy, but as far as I know it was not a major influence in their lives. However, Pete did write a parody of the song “Give Me That Old Time Religion” that mentions Zarathustra, Hare Krishna, Odin, Aphrodite, and includes this little verse:
Let me follow dear old Buddha
For there is nobody cuter
He comes in plaster, wood, or pewter
And that’s good enough for me
It’s a bit of cliché now to talk about leaving the world a better place than you found it, but that’s exactly what Pete Seeger did. He left us better people, too. So long, Pete, it’s been good to know yuh.
Here is a video clip of Pete picking a hard-drivin’ banjo and singing one of my favorite Woody Guthrie songs, “Pastures of Plenty.”