I learned a lot from Pete, especially that the history of a people is kept alive in the songs that are learned and sung by the next generation. There are stories that travel along with the songs that are important to remember and share too. The act of singing together is akin to sitting down together and sharing your loaf of bread and pot of soup. It is a powerful force for calming or inciting action. Every movement for some sort of social justice needs and probably has a uniting song of some sort. Pete spent a lot of his life keeping songs alive and teaching them to people one line at a time, repeat-after-me style. He gave me songs to sing my child to sleep as well as talk with her about the Great Depression and migrant farm workers.
I was born at the end of the 60s a middle-class white kid. My parents exposed us a bit to the civil rights movement but I was privileged enough to remain mostly clueless as a little kid. By the time I was old enough to understand what was going on in the news, the Vietnam War was ending. Concerns about pollution and the energy crisis of the mid-70s are some of the first things I remember more clearly. My Dad was a classical music fan and he and my mom both listened to singer songwriters, some of them with folk music backgrounds like John Denver. I was aware of music used for protest through comments made on the albums we had by the Smothers Brothers and the Kingston Trio. My folks weren't listening to rock and roll so we didn't hear it at home. My Mom says she was too busy raising kids to even be aware of the Beatles. By the time the mid-70s rolled around and I started school, my folks had bumped down the economic ladder a few rungs. They were a part of a trend of people who left cities and moved out to rural areas, sometimes off the grid. We still had electricity but we heated with wood and had a huge garden. My Dad worked and put up wood for the winter, my mom joined the League of Women Voters and wrote grants for the school system, and they became friends with a group of folks that were worried about the environment, civil rights, and education. For me, a lot of the issues they were talking about remained pretty abstract but were a constant hum in the backgound.
Also in the background for gatherings with these friends, there was folk music. We learned a lot of songs that I would later connect with Pete Seeger but at that point we were just singing songs that were easy to learn and fun to sing. Then in about 1976, our PBS station showed a concert with Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. It was simulcast on the public radio station and I made a copy of the sound track on a cassette tape. Some of it has been loaded onto Youtube. I was finally old enough to really listen to what they were singing about and to begin to understand the stories they were telling about everything from the labor movement to the civil rights protesters, Stephen Biko dying from a police beating in South Africa, nuclear power plants and women trying to earn the same wage for the same work as men. I listened to the tape so many times that I still have the on-stage banter memorized as well as the music and I started to ask questions. I got interested in what was going on outside the remote area we lived in and started to listen to the news. I found Pete's record albums at the library and learned about the junta in Chile and blacklisting. In the same record bins, I found the Beatles singing about revolution and anti-war protests as well as sex, drugs and rock and roll. By this point, Reagan was in office and disco was popular along with big permed hair. But there were also older Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen songs and me with my long, straight, decade out of style, hippie-girl hair still trying to make sense of it all.
Anyway, back to Pete. He helped me expand my horizons to see beyond my own backyard and care about the lives that other people were living. By singing his songs, I absorbed his message that we have an obligation to hold people with power to accountability and question why we do things the way we do. Pete had some controversial beliefs, particularly his support for communism. He taught me that it's ok to even question the people we hold as role models and that ideology that sounds lovely as an academic model may turn out to be very damaging in practice. Mainly, though, I learned that one voice raised in song can be a force to be reckoned with and can inspire tremendous change. Sing about the change you want to see in the world. Listen to what other people are singing about. Keep singing the older songs because they show the path we walked to get where we are even if the path veered off into the weeds for a while. I'm a product of my upbringing and my life experiences and I'm still very much a work in progress. I have a lot to learn. That is reinforced daily by many voices on tumblr. I hope I can honor Pete's memory by being open to hearing other voices and learning from them and in turn, have the courage to add my voice to create a better harmony for everyone.
(I can't find a photo credit for this picture but I found it in many places on the web including the NPR tumblr.)