by Folk Alley contributor, Chaka V. Grier (@chakavgrier)
Long before social media became the way many of us learned about the trials and tribulations of the world in real time, or the term “woke” morphed from aspirational to a co-opted marketing tool for “authentic” brands (or re-branding of dodgy ones), it was music—gospel, soul, jazz, punk, reggae, and folk, and sometimes even pop music—that spread the news about prejudice, injustice, and environmental chaos. Many musicians throughout history have proudly held society accountable. They were often revered for their ability to call out political and social hypocrisy and push for change, all by engaging ears and opening minds—and hearts.
The music of Pete Seeger, who famously altered the truism “the pen is mightier than the sword” into his own activist vison by facing off his 12-string guitar against bombs of war, was one of those essential voices that made folk protest music a force to be reckoned with.
There is a joyful conviction in Pete Seeger’s music, and in his exuberant, throw-his-head-back style of singing, that continues to inspire and resonate nearly eight years after his 2014 death, and decades after he became iconic.
Seeger’s life was passionate and prolific: he lent his voice to causes as diverse as worker’s rights, Civil Rights, and environmental causes. He penned significant tracks such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)”, and the oft-recorded “Turn! Turn! Turn!” He sang for the least privileged as well as presidents, including Barack Obama, and co-found the influential folk magazine, Sing Out—all the while enjoying a long, fruitful marriage to Toshi Seeger.
Seeger, via his popular quartet, The Weavers, rose to fame in part by adapting African American blues songs like Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s “Goodnight, Irene,” into a palatable version perfect for white audiences to respectably enjoy. But unlike many white artists who willfully borrowed or even outright stole from African American artists to attain personal fame, fortune, and the much coveted “soul,” Seeger earnestly and ardently lived and breathed the values he professed in his music. He was internally inspired and driven by his personal vision for equality and a healthy, peaceful earth.
He had learned from his father, Charles Seeger, to stand up for what was right even if it meant standing alone, and he took this to heart, tirelessly serving voiceless communities.
Though the charming, charismatic Seeger was rarely alone for long, he was renowned for bringing people together. Seeger refused to be silenced, even after the Weavers were forced to disband due to his refusal to answer Congress’s questions during the Red Scare. Ever undeterred and humble, he toured coffee houses and school, lending his talent and energy wherever change was needed. As the Communist blacklist slipped into the rearview, he continued to do his activism work without much fanfare or media attention. His refusal to stop singing and writing for justice throughout his lifetime was awe-inspiring.
Seeger also had a brilliant imagination and ability to re-interpret spirituals and scripture into fresh folk songs that spoke to and captured the energy of the time. As The New York Times journalist Jon Pareles wrote for Seeger’s obituary in 2014: “Another of Mr. Seeger’s songs, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ became an antiwar standard. And in 1965, the Byrds had a No. 1 hit with a folk-rock version of ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!,’ Mr. Seeger’s setting of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes. … For Mr. Seeger, folk music and a sense of community were inseparable, and where he saw a community, he saw the possibility of political action.”
This desire to bring diverse voices and hearts into union would influence his and Guy Carawan’s alteration of the spiritual hymn, “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” which had evolved during the labor movement into the popular, “We Will Overcome.” Seeger wanted to help make it more “sing-able,” so he changed the word from “will” to “shall.” The alteration worked like magic, and this version quickly became one of the anthems of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960.
As we live, learn, and lose in what has become an exaggerated “WOKE versus MAGA” culture, it feels like there are few avenues the Seegers of the world can take to bypass the glossy Instagram veneer of “realness,” in order to make music that creates meaningful change—Kendrick Lamar aside. Kim Kardashian has received more attention for working on prison reform than any musician in recent years, making one recall Shakespeare’s, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” phrase. When advocacy and activism become a brand-friendly chess move used by influencers to pivot their curated careers between their failed marriage and rebooted reality show, no one truly wins. In fact, we all lose.
Today, on Seeger’s birthday, one could imagine him singing his heart out to celebrate modern union movements that are transforming corporations like Amazon and Starbucks from the inside out, as he did for Labor Unions with the Almanac Singers in the early 1940s. Or he’d be found enthusiastically playing his guitar for Black Lives Matter or Trans Rights protesters as they demand equality, just as he did in the 1960s for Civil Rights. Maybe he’d also pen an updated anti-war chant to support peace in Ukraine—and the world—like he did for the anti-Vietnam movement of the 1960’s.
Or, maybe Pete Seeger would just take to his famous boat, the Sloop Clearwater, built to sail the Hudson River in order to spread awareness about environmental neglect and pollution under which the earth is dying, in his iconic faded denim and baseball cap. Certainly he would ponder, like many of us are, a way forward, now that the pandemic has changed the world, to truly overcome the ills of the past.
*To celebrate Pete Seeger’s legacy, we’ve added a collection of his best music to the Classic Folk stream. Go here to listen and celebrate throughout the month of May.