Pete Seeger, Democracy’s Tireless Bard
Pete Seeger, the noted folk singer and long-time social justice advocate, died in Manhattan on January 27th. I spent several days thereafter collecting pieces written about his long life and seven decades of public performance. While 94 at his death, Seeger had released not one, but two recordings in 2012, just two years prior. He was deeply engaged in his work until the end of his long life. Almost all the encomiums I read concerning Seeger highlighted his personal courage and how he sought to use music and his artistry not only to touch, but also to solicit the active social engagement of those for and with whom he performed. I want to develop each of these themes briefly here.
He was a target of the “Red” hysteria of the early1950s and of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) particularly in 1955, and that attention caused the demise of Seeger’s previously popular group, The Weavers. He famously refused to cooperate with the House Committee and was later held in contempt of Congress by a federal jury for that stance, and was sentenced to 10 concurrent one-year jail sentences. He successfully appealed that outcome, which was overturned in 1962, without once compromising, as evidenced in this to-and-fro with the HUAC Committee chairperson in 1955:
Chairman (Francis) Walter: I direct you to answer.
Mr. Seeger: Sir, the whole line of questioning-
Chairman Walter: You have only been asked one question, so far.
Mr. Seeger: 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. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.
Mr. Seeger: I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.
Seeger stood firm for what he took to be his rights to his individual Constitutionally mandated freedom of speech and association, despite fear-induced popular opprobrium and the hysterical tyrannizing of the now infamous HUAC. In retrospect, we know how correct he was and how far off the rails our Republic had gone in its frenzied anxiety concerning a postulated Communist menace.
Seeger’s calmly courageous attitude, evidenced in his response to the HUAC, never changed and he used music throughout his career thereafter to advocate for a long series of causes, which he took to represent common needs and democratic claims. He appeared at labor movement rallies, marched for civil rights, sang protest songs, decried the nation’s military involvement in Vietnam and, most recently, joined the Occupy Movement campaign against the massive income and wealth inequality now evident in the nation. Seeger was also an environmental activist who sought not only to proselytize, but also to take specific action to clean up the polluted Hudson River (near which he lived for decades), by founding a very effective nonprofit group with just that mission. Music was an outlet that allowed him to decry injustice as he saw it and to highlight a wide range of groups and issues.
One might leave the matter there, but I was also struck as I reviewed remembrances that Seeger did not simply use his talent or the power of the aesthetic medium in which he worked to press his personal concerns in a public way, although that was surely part of why he acted as he did. Instead, as musician and self-proclaimed Seeger mentee Tom Paxton, who has himself earned considerable acclaim, observed in an NPR interview concerning what he had learned from him:
Look 'em (the audience) in the eye. Make a gesture of inclusion, which he did all the time. And above all, have a chorus. So I learned from Pete to have something for them to sing.
“Having something for them to sing” did not mean ensuring their agreement with Seeger’s point-of-view, but it did imply an audience’s engagement or involvement with a concern, if only in that moment. And that instant was itself precious, for with many audience members it represented an act of conscious agency that they perhaps had experienced only rarely, if ever, previously. For those marching in civil rights protests who had endured discrimination for decades and who often met with violence in their efforts to secure justice, raising their voices together opened a space for participation and political efficacy that joined them in their sense of democratic possibility, whether or not they agreed on every particular of how that was to be fully realized. Music was Seeger’s medium, his mode of aesthetic imagination and expression, to reveal potentials that joined his audience with him in collective agency. Music was a gift for itself surely, but it was often also the means by which Seeger sought not so much to assure common demands as to lay claim to individual and joint democratic capability against all forces that might estop it. Seeger’s voice and music were raised, in short, not only to press specific political claims, but in the name and on behalf of individual political agency itself.
He was indefatigable in his efforts to reach Americans and to make them aware that they personally and collectively possessed the power to set injustices right and to redress wrongs. He told his audiences that it was that power that would secure the future of freedom for all in their society. Seeger spent decades using the force of aesthetic expression to highlight human dignity, and most of all to encourage his listeners to engage to address their shared needs. The folksinger reminded them untiringly that if they did become involved and thereby both realized and exercised their individual and combined power, they could surely secure change. His art was undertaken in the name of, and further to, individual efficacy and freedom and collective democratic possibility. As he put it in one of his famous compositions:
If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning I'd hammer in the evening, All over this land
I'd hammer out danger, I'd hammer out a warning, I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters, All over this land.
If I had a bell, I'd ring it in the morning, I'd ring it in the evening, All over this land
I'd ring out danger, I'd ring out a warning I'd ring out love between my brothers and my sisters, All over this land.
If I had a song, I'd sing it in the morning, I'd sing it in the evening, All over this land
I'd sing out danger, I'd sing out a warning I'd sing out love between my brothers and my sisters, All over this land.
For Seeger the hammer was his music, the proximate aim was democratic agency and the long-term aspiration was an ever more perfect freedom for all. May he rest in well-earned peace.
February 2, 2014