American folk singer and activist (but I repeat myself) Pete Seeger died yesterday at the ripe old age of 94. I never got the chance to see Pete in person, but I did see so many of the people he influenced, including Arlo Guthrie and Harry Chapin.
I really have nothing to say about Pete Seeger that can improve upon what Bruce Springsteen said at Pete Seeger’s 90 Birthday Concert:
And I asked him how he wanted to approach “This Land Is Your Land”. It would be near the end of the show and all he said was, “Well, I know I want to sing all the verses, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote, especially the two that get left out, about private property and the relief office.”
I thought, of course, that’s what Pete’s done his whole life. He sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we’d like to leave out of our history as a people.
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. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself.
Pete Seeger still sings all the verses all the time, and he reminds us of our immense failures as well as shining a light toward our better angels and the horizon where the country we’ve imagined and hold dear we hope awaits us.
Bruce Springsteen’s introduction of Pete Seeger
Harry Chapin singing his tribute to Pete – “Old Folkie”
Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie singing “If I Had a Hammer”
Pete Seeger on the Johnny Cash Show on March 4, 1970