Tuesday, January 28, 2014

R.I.P. Pete Seeger

If anyone ever personified the accolade "living legend," it was Pete Seeger. He was a man for the ages, a living slice of Americana, ageless and seemingly immortal. And that is why learning of his death at age 94 was still such a shock. 

Most of the world knew him, of course, as a folksinger. But to the locals in my Hudson Valley neck of the woods, he was known primarily as a social activist. I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Pete a couple of times. The first time was in the mid-70s, as part of a controversial effort to transform the national historic landmark Dutch Reformed Church in Newburgh, N.Y. into a performing arts center for the black community. This was during the time when that Hudson River city and other blighted urban areas nationwide were still reeling from racial and social unrest and when the Black Panthers were an active and activist presence in minority communities. In other words, a threat to the established order. So when a young African-American man named Curtis Stewart had the effrontery to take over a crumbling building and rename it the Hudson Valley Freedom Theater, it raised a lot of official hackles and derision and push-back from city fathers and poobahs.

And then Pete Seeger showed up to lend support, and the powers that be shut up for awhile. After another decade of legal wrangling and funding problems, title of the structure reverted to the city. Pete had a way of lending his voice to all kinds of causes, and they were usually the unpopular ones. 

For example, during the Reagan era, he only sold ten tickets to his benefit concert for the homeless.

He was already well-known locally for his efforts to clean up the Hudson River, long unfishable because of pollution with PCBs. G.E. finally began removal of the toxic waste decades after they dumped it. Pete led the effort to pass the Clean Water Act. He built the sloop Clearwater and hosted generations of schoolchildren on a floating classroom, teaching them a love and respect for the environment.

It's probably fitting that one of his last public appearances was in a march with Occupy Wall Street after a concert in 2011.

The New York Times has a fine obituary here. And here's a great piece by the late Mike Levine.

  Today I'm going to hunt down some of my old Weavers and Seeger solo albums and reinvigorate myself with the music of a fine giving man, a legend who can never really die.


fahrenheit451 said...


Thanks so much for that tribute.

If there is one word that comes to mind with Seeger's death, today, in 2014, it is solidarity, something that he and the sometimes joined voices him around would create at a concert, even if just for an evening. Just listing the songs he is so remembered for though, reminds us that they helped create the spirit, the emotional groundswell to get things done in society, things that badly needed doing.

If any word stands more isolated and forlorn today, in 2014, in the context of needed reforms, it is solidarity, solidarity alone in the land of hyper-individualism, cultural fragmentation and economic polarization.

Just one posting ago, I mentioned Ralph Nader, Gar Alperovitz and Chris Hedges as the leading coherent thinkers on the left, and if they have anything in common it is a sense that we are facing in political and economic terms what a famous song called "The Wall." The Wall, the power of the establishment presents us with, and we don't know if we're going over it, under it or going to take it down peacefully, brick by brick or with a great concerted push, topple it.

But somehow, the enormous task, the daunting task described by each of these three voices would be made easier, and the emotions better summoned and directed, by a higher voice such as Seeger's; I don't know who can stand in for him, for the missing solidarity in the land of fragmentation.

Noodge said...

I suppose I should have known, Karen, that you would not let Seeger's passing go unmarked. If you don't mind I'll re-post a little of what I said on the previous thread.

I was eleven years old when I saw Pete perform for the first time at an environmental rally at Colt Park in Hartford, Connecticut. I was transfixed by his tenor and his banjo playing.

After a few rather innocuous songs, designed to get the audience singing along and involved, he told us all we needed to make choices in our lives, and the choices we made would define us. Seeger then played "Which Side are You On?"

I knew then exactly the choices I would make for the rest of my life. At that moment I knew whose side I was on. I am certain Pete Seeger had a similar impact on many, many other lives.

A friend of mine once asked me why I always went to see Seeger whenever the opportunity presented itself, saying, "You go to the shows and he always ends up preaching to the choir."

"You don't understand," I told him, "Seeger's the reason the choir exists in the first place."

Pearl said...

A beautiful tribute to Pete Seeger, Karen. He was a real treasure. An inspiring musician, a fearless fighter for all things good, a role model for
the rest of us - one could go on and on. As they say he truly lived a life of purpose and we are fortunate to have had him among us for all these years. Thank goodness for records and writing to remind us of his accomplishments. A great loss.

annenigma said...

God, I love that guy. Lucky you, Karen, that you lived within his sphere.

Just think of how many people Pete Seeger touched so powerfully with his beautiful songs, words, and actions because they were heartfelt and genuine. And he didn't even have the power of the Presidency! He also didn't have television exposure after Hoover leaked his FBI file, then the HUAC did their dirty work to cap it all off. Some things don't change all that much. 'Snowden is a Russian spy!'

It brings tears to my eyes that we have lost such a genuine and caring human being who was also, blessedly, an Activist. That's why he touches my heart so deeply.

It's disturbing to think that a question posed to him by the House Un-American Activities Committee wouldn't even be asked today, given the NSA's abilities to secretly go after whatever information they want about us. Unlike 'back in the day', it's all now legal, and what they can do with that personal info stays secret as well, by authorities of the NDAA, Patriot Act, etc.

At least during the Hoover and HUAC years, we could more easily see and hear what they were doing and the damage resulting. Now everything is STEALTHY and kept below the corporate media radar as well. The Gag Orders accompanying the issuance of National Security Letters last 50 years, so people essentially aren't EVER allowed to reveal they've been questioned or forced to give over information. HUAC was Amateur Hour. We live in dark times but we're fooled by the artificial lights given off by the media and their too frequent conveyance of glaring government lies.

Seeger told us what our message to the government should be, even if they now simply steal what they want to know about us:

"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."

Here is a link to the transcript of his testimony to the HUAC:


Pete Seeger's beautiful life was a work of art. I hope we will all try to keep a part of his activist spirit alive in ourselves. There is no better way to honor his life and our common beliefs and goals.

Tara said...

"Pete Seeger's beautiful life was a work of art. I hope we will all try to keep a part of his activist spirit alive in ourselves. There is no better way to honor his life and our common beliefs and goals." Couldn't have said it better myself!

The closest I ever got to Pete was meeting Ronnie, and doing a music workshop with her. She is another national treasure.

annenigma said...

I dare you to read this 1958 song that Pete Seeger wrote and not cry like I did.

'To My Old Brown Earth'

To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last
few molecules of “I.”

And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry.

Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.

And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I’m yours
And you are also mine.

Pearl said...


What a wonderful summing up you presented of his life and effect on people. Being reminded of his statements to the HUAC during the McCarthy years and your statement about no need for them anymore since everything is now signed, sealed and filed about people's lives and activities sent a chill of remembrance down my spine.
McCarthyism has indeed been resurrected and come back to life in the activities by our government with no questions allowed or answered. I am sure Pete had something to say about these recent years and wonder if anything is on record about it.

The moving tributes from so many people in comments to several newspaper articles indicates how people are still holding on desperately to what Pete
Seeger stood for. I am sure he would say to stand up and fight and not allow this transgression on our lives and country to continue. This message is really * blowing in the wind * more and more and we have to get on the bandwagon no matter how little to support the political activists now and coming up in the future.

Thinking about the possibility of Hillary becoming our next President should be a giant wake up call to any sane citizen - that and the State of the Union speech by Obama tonight.

Pearl said...

I looked up information about Pete Seeger's wife, Toshi Seeger who died not long before him. She was an interesting woman (half Japanese) who supported
and inspired him and had skills in her own right. The Wikipedia had a good article about her and I hope she will be mentioned along with his obituary.
Women of famous men are often not given credit due them.

James F Traynor said...

Pete Seeger. Hell, his name makes me homesick for the Hudson Valley and the northern Catskills, headwaters of the Schoharie River.

Yeah, annenigma, I listened to that song,'The Old Brown Earth'. Andy Revnick has it up on DotEarth. And you're right , it's impossible not to what you... said.

James F Traynor said...

Revkin, not Revnick. Never get it right.

Pearl said...

Through the miracle of the internet, all you have to do is punch in Pete Seeger's name plus music videos or a specific song and lots and lots of choices pop up. The sound is as clear as a bell like his voice and I even found one of him singing the song "To my old brown earth"
standing in front of the Hudson river with a beautiful chorus following.

It is the best antidote to the State of the Union speech playing behind me (without sound) and when a few words come online of this latest Obama speech I cannot believe the continuing BS being repeated. The contrast is beyond belief.

There are songs of Pete Seeger one can hear that I didn't even know existed,and from from all phases of his long life.
For those of us who don't have old records of his or a player to listen to, the computer is the next best thing. I sometimes listen to classical music
videos on it.

Yes, there was an early video of him singing Whose Side are you On Now?which is absolutely timeless. That should become a current anthem in the country as a tribute to him.

Zee said...

So. Did anyone listen to The SOTU Address? (Don't answer, Pearl--I know you had the volume turned down.)

Tell me all about it tomorrow after my breakfast has settled.