On Tuesday 28 January legendary folk singer Pete Seeger passed way at age 94.
Not everyone would recognise the name but all would recognise his music – songs he sang and made famous included “If I had a hammer”, “Turn!Turn!Turn! – To everything there is a season”, “Michael Row the boat ashore” and “We shall overcome”.
I had heard the name Pete Seeger but I only got to know his amazing story by chance when I saw the musical biography “One Word…WE! – The songs and story of Pete Seeger and friends” performed at the Woodford Folk Festival in 2001. I was luck to catch the performance again at the 2009 Festival when it was performed on New Year’s Eve. “One Word…WE!” was written by Sydney musician and union activist Maurie Mulheron and performed by a group of musicians from Sydney.
The musical biography featured the cast singing the songs of Pete Seeger interspersed with stories from his life. One story that I will never forget began in 1949 when Pete Seeger was invited to sing several songs at a concert organised by Paul Robeson at Peekskill upstate New York. 1949 was at the height of the cold war and Robeson and other performers were known members of the communist party. Thousands of people rallied to protest the concert featuring known communists and as Pete Seeger and other performers left the concert they had to drive through crowns wielding clubs and hurling stones. All the cars were badly damaged and a number of the performers were injured.
50 years later Pete was invited back to perform a concert for the people of Peekskill and he was warmly received by the local people there. Pete was heartened to think that some of the people in the audience enjoying his music would have been the children and grandchildren of those who had stoned his car all those years before.
Pete Seeger became heavily involved in the civil rights movement and one the songs he made famous “We Shall Overcome” became the anthem for the movement. The FBI carried out an investigation to try to work out what sustained the civil rights movement and concluded that music was a major factor. One of the proudest moments of Pete’s life came in January 2009 when Pete was invited to sing at the inauguration of Barack Obama.
Pete Seeger influenced generations of US musicians – people such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen. This is some of what Bruce Springsteen had to say on the occasion of Pete’s 90th birthday.
“As Pete and I travelled to Washington for President Obama’s inaugural celebration, he told me the entire story of We Shall Overcome. How it moved from a labour movement song, and with Pete’s inspiration, had been adapted by the civil rights movement. That day as we sang This Land Is Your Land, I looked at Pete, the first black president of the United States was seated to his right, and I thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken. My own growing up in the 60s in towns scarred by race rioting made that moment nearly unbelievable, and Pete had 30 extra years of struggle and real activism on his belt. He was so happy that day. It was like, ‘Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man!’ ”
Check out the rest of what Bruce Springsteen had to say from last Saturday’s Weekend Australian. For an inspiring look at Pete Seeger’s life and legacy it is hard to beat the PBS biography “The Power of Song” recorded in 2007. For an Australian take on Pete Seeger listen to the great interview with Andrew Ford from RN’s music show recorded in 1999.
And as Arlo Guthrie said this week: “Of course he passed away. But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.”