For me, the door slammed shut to the sixties two days ago when Pete Seeger died. Twanging along to his banjo or guitar, he was in the center of all its protests, articulating its moral zeal. There was never doubt he believed in the power of song to bring small folks together to change the big powers that be. No matter if he was attending rallies to support unions, marching for the Civil Rights movement or to end the Vietnamese war, he’d sing then ask the audience to join in. Clearly for him, song was tantamount to prayer.
The folk music itself was a big part of his message. In listening to recordings, I was struck by how clearly he articulated the lyrics. It was as if he viewed himself as some sort of conjurer, channeling the words and wisdom of small folks from our past to deal with the big problems of our present. He sang songs for children and songs for grownups, songs at once soothing and invigorating, conveying an encompassing support and energy to go with the fight.
In recent years when I’ve seen him, Seeger has made my heart jump into my throat. Yes, that was my sensation at the sight of that reedy man in news footage of his ninetieth birthday bash at Madison Square Garden. He sang with so much joy in front of thousands, it didn’t matter his voice had lost half its former resonance. Though frailer than I’d seen him, he still stood quite upright as if all his political battles had kept him in shape, building muscles no one would expect him to have.
He was incorruptible too. In a pale blue work shirt, he refused to cave into the pressures of McCarthy, not naming names during the grilling of the House on Un-American Activities Committee. He didn’t seem to care about wealth and power so he couldn’t be intimidated by threats of their withdrawal. If TV networks no longer wanted him, he found a way to survive, singing around the edges of our country and world. Despite his anti-government stance, he was unmistakably patriotic, bursting into Woodie Guthrie’s anthem, “This land is my land, this land is your land” at every opportunity. Clearly, He would never have fought so hard against money and power if he’d had doubts that our land was worth it.
Seeger could be a bit of a curmudgeon. He didn’t necessarily want times to change. When Bob Dylan first played folk on the electrical guitar, Seeger was horrified. But when he was behind the mic, singing and strumming with all his might, the whole audience in his hand, he was stunning, a spirit onto himself. For me at least, he made it easy to believe that I was part of something bigger, better than myself, that I could live in brother and sisterhood with the many others in the audience, equally smitten with his powers of voice and heart.