I've been trying to figure out why Pete Seeger's death yesterday, at age 94, is hitting me so hard.
Part of it is just that I've been exhausted for days, and slept particularly poorly last night, including a difficult dream involving scattering my father's ashes and seeing a friend I'm on awkward terms with. But I think that's not all of it; I think it's also that Seeger has been a part of my life for my entire life.
I can't remember the first time I heard a recording of him singing ”Abiyoyo” or “Little Boxes” or “Which Side Are You On?”, but it was certainly before I was ten years old, and probably years before. I think I first saw him perform live before I was ten, too, though I'm less certain of that. The last time I saw him perform was probably in the late '90s, probably in Golden Gate Park; his voice was a shadow of what it had been, but the magic was still there.
I still listen regularly to songs from his Children's Concert at Town Hall and Greatest Hits albums (which I think were the only ones we had when I was a kid), especially “Here's to Cheshire, Here's to Cheese” and “Talking Union.”
I went to John McCutcheon's annual concert in Santa Cruz a couple weeks ago (I keep forgetting to write that up), and though the concert was focused significantly on Woody Guthrie, who McCutcheon owes a lot to, I couldn't help thinking of Seeger. Seeger's concerts were where I learned about singing along, and Seeger's singing was my first exposure to most of the Guthrie songs I've heard.
So Seeger has meant a lot to me personally, for the music and for the politics. But he's also meant a lot to the country, I think. Friends linked this morning to his testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955; the first half in particular is a pleasure to read. Sample line:
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.
And here's a bit from his 1963 Carnegie Hall concert:
If you would like to get out of a pessimistic mood yourself, I've got one sure remedy for you: Go help those people down in Birmingham—Mississippi—Alabama. There are many ways to do it; you don't have to go there yourself.... There's all kinds of jobs that need to be done. Takes hands and hearts and heads to do it. Human beings to do it. And then we'll see this song come true.
And then he sings “We Shall Overcome,” with the audience singing along.
While I'm quoting, but on a different note, I also want to quote something I've quoted before from the end of his sequence of transportation songs on the Children's Concert album:
Well, now, let's see, we started off with horses, we went to canal boats, went to railroads, went to automobiles.... I suppose really we should have some songs about rocket ships. But you know, they aren't really written yet; I guess you're gonna have to write 'em.
And I'll close with a link to my transcription of his discussion of the origins of “Talking Union,” including the final verses of the song. Worth reading. Or listening to.
As Seeger said in 1972, quoted in Rolling Stone: “Some may find them merely diverting melodies. Others may find them incitements to Red revolution. And who will say if either or both is wrong? Not I.”
Farewell, Mr. Seeger, and thank you. We'll miss you.