Voices United: Remembering Pete Seeger

I’m finding that I am affected by the death of Pete Seeger early this morning. In a way that seems surprising.

I listened to his music mostly when I was in high school, at a time when I was reading voraciously about the life and thought of Mahatma Gandhi and learning about the civil rights movement in the United States.

I was myself involved in the student peace and disarmament movement, and immersing myself in theories and histories of social justice movements. It seems that what I was learning about peace, civil rights and labour movements, was the black-and-white outlines that Pete Seeger’s music filled in.

There was something about his recordings, both the songs and the context he gave the songs by speaking about them, that seemed to give what I was learning its third dimension. Also, by following some of the musicians he was influenced by, and the musicians and musicologists who he influenced, that I became better grounded in the life and spirit of activism.

Hearing Pete Seeger in concert at Place des Arts was an experience in the power of raising one’s voice together with others. He told stories, sang, and most of all encouraged us to sing along.

One believed, in the presence of this musician and his audience, in the power of people united. With hundreds others, in the context of moving together for peace and social justice, it was a felt sense of solidarity and community.

I met him backstage, where he signed my programme and punctured a hole in my nostalgia, deflating any sense I had had that the “good old days” of activism were over. It seemed to me, in the Reagan-Mulroney-Thatcher eighties, that my cohorts and I were a voice crying in the wilderness.

I don’t remember his exact words, but he somehow imparted to me and my other teenaged friends that we were right in the midst of changing the world, in our own time, in our own battles, in our own way. These were the good old days.

Still, I sometimes bemoaned the fact that we didn’t seem to have any music—the LGBT and AIDS activist movements, the peace and global justice movements. Dance anthems and hip-hop came close—but were not songs to be sung together.

The only place I ever experienced anything comparable was at church.

As a youth, I began attending my local Unitarian congregation’s weekly worship. Like many who find Unitarian Universalism, when I first arrived it felt like a homecoming. So many others who think the way I do about faith and religion and the world! What made my experience more awesome was I made friends with, and was befriended by, people who were much older than I was.

There was no other place where I raised my voice in song. And no other place where I sang with others, non-professional singers all. The power of this practice—to run sound through your own body that runs through the bodies of those around you—is community-forming, an embodied way of being in solidarity–and claiming the space surrounding you.

Many others, no doubt, are giving Pete Seeger the better-articulated tribute that he so rightly deserves.  For me, his was the voice that activated something in my soul, something that longed to connect with others in solidarity and community in the struggles for freedom. That called me deeper into a life of activism. And that helped me find my voice.

May his memory be eternal.

29 thoughts on “Voices United: Remembering Pete Seeger

  1. I am also of that generation. The words had more meaning. They were clean and had deep meanings even though they were simple and direct. Where did the flowers go, they have wilted with time and have been replanted into a new generation which does not take to see the beauty and smell the roses.

  2. I sat stunned this morning, “Old Devil Time” finally caught up with Pete. I grieved at work, none of my co-workers twixt 30 to 56 knew who he was. I grieve for a world where kids dont sing round the fire anymore. Let us keep his message alive, “All around this Old World. Thanks for the post..

  3. Reblogged this on Sally Ember, Ed.D. and commented:
    Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, The Weavers, The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez: the voices of our generation sing FOREVER.
    “All things shall perish from under the sky,
    Music alone shall live
    Music alone shall live
    Music alone shall live, never to die.”

  4. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed; that’s how I found you. I knew of Pete Seeger in the 60s when the only music I listened to was either Folk or Classical. I still listen to Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie (who wrote a wonderfully moving piece about Pete on Facebook this morning) and others from that era, and to The Boss who seems to be carrying on the traditions but with rock instead of folk. I have been teary-eyed all day; Pete Seeger was an icon, an activist, and has inspired so many over his long career. May he enjoy being reunited with his beloved Toshi.

  5. It’s always great to look to figures of the past for inspiration. I think it’s easy to fall into the generational trap though; who hasn’t heard someone say “those were the days,” when there were real problems that we were solving. The lesson we can learn here is that there will always be problems no matter the generation, and we can honor those past activists by recognizing these problems and move in a direction to enrich the lives of all people.

  6. I remember his voice so clear and powerful when i was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. And later, I learned to play the banjo from his instruction book published around 1950 and still one of the best. I heard that he never took any profits from the sales. Anyway, thanks for the moving look back.
    Brock Haussamen

  7. Pete Seeger will be missed. Never forget that he helped write, arrange or revive such perennial favorites as “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and popularized the anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.”

  8. Reblogged this on Bob Avsec's Blog and commented:
    This author’s blog struck a “chord” in me and I hope it will others as well. I also believe there’s much “missing soul” in our societies today and a good deal of that can be attributed to there being nobody like Pete Seeger to provide the soundtrack for our lives. RIP, Pete.

  9. Heal our heroes. Their courage is our inspiration. They are our voice and our vision. Our gratitude is light on their path. Thank you Mr. Seeger. – The Healing Garden gardener

  10. I grew up a generation later with my parents playing and singing these simple songs to me – songs that stayed with me so much that when I heard the news of his death I immediately launched into singing “If I had a hammer” as I drove to school. On Monday, my assembly to the children aged 4-11 focused on the song “We shall overcome” and what it had meant all those years ago and why it was still a message for today – by the end of the song sung by Pete in all its glory the children were joining in with those powerful lyrics and the school hall rang out. That surely shows how inspirational and amazing his talent was and how his songs will never be forgotten – they still have relevance and lyrical pure simplicity. By the way, this message comes from England so his music spans the world!

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