Story of Hope: Pete Seeger

Our stories can heal us.

Our own stories, when told in new ways, can heal us; and we can also be healed by one another’s stories. Sometimes our voices tell our stories. Sometimes they sing them out.

The thing about legendary folkie Pete Seeger is that he prefers not to sing alone. When he gets up on stage he calls upon his audience to join him, to raise their voices in song. As Bob Dylan recounts in the documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, “He had this amazing ability to look at a group of people and to make them all sing parts of a song, and he made an orchestration of a simple little song with everybody in the audience singing—whether you wanted to or not you found yourself singing a part.” Dylan’s face lights up when he tells the story. He adds, “It would be beautiful.”

And that is how Pete Seeger ignited and united a movement that helped to put an end to the Vietnam War and changed the landscape of the American music scene.

Seeger’s popular folk band, The Weavers, was blacklisted by parts of the entertainment industry in 1950 for their leftist politics and their history of singing protest songs. Radio stations stopped playing Weavers tracks, and Decca, the band’s label, dropped them in 1953 and deleted their songs from its catalog.

Then in 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify about his past Communist affiliations before the House Un-American Activities Committee. When asked to name personal and political affiliations, he refused. Citing his First Amendment rights, he said instead, “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.”

He was indicted and then convicted for contempt of Congress. He faced a year in jail, but still he did not back down. Finally, seven years later, the conviction was overturned.

Imagine what those times must have been like! Seeger isn’t much for complaining, but I think his Weavers compatriot Ronnie Gilbert encapsulated the experience well with these words: “We lost our livelihood, we lost our careers. But we lost much more than that. We lost the sense that we were living in a democratic society.” Pete Seeger faced some bleak times.

Unable to get on the radio, considered a traitor to American patriotism, Seeger never stopped singing. He turned to the children. He went into schools and started teaching folk songs to the youth of America. Remember singing “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” in grade school? Thank Pete Seeger for popularizing this African-American slave song. While he was blacklisted, he taught a whole generation the power of song.

One night, as the Vietnam War raged on against the tide of protest by folkies like Seeger, a young man approached him after a concert and shook his hand. The man was a Vietnam vet; some of his friends had been killed in Vietnam. He explained that he was outraged that Seeger was one of those speaking out against the war, and said, “Mr. Seeger, I came here to kill you.”

But sitting in the audience, hearing Seeger sing, and the voices raised in song all around him, the man found he could not take out his gun and pull the trigger. Something in the music changed him.

Seeger sat down with the man. They talked a bit, but mostly they sang together. They sang Seeger’s song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and afterwards the man thanked him. He said, “I feel clean.” The hatred had been washed out of him.

Pete Seeger had something to say and he sang it out. He spoke up before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and then despite being blacklisted he kept on singing. “The best music I’ve ever made in my life,” he says, “has been when I can get all the folks, all of them, young, old, conservative, liberal, radical, get them all singing on the choruses.”

In 1994 Bill Clinton awarded Seeger a Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Honor, and this past January, at President Obama’s inauguration, Seeger stood on a stage in front of the Lincoln Memorial with his musician grandson, Tao Rodriquez-Seeger, and Bruce Springsteen, and led millions of blissed-out Americans in a triumphant round of Woody Guthrie’s anthem, “This Land is Your Land.” (You can see it for yourself, here.) He sang it as Woody wrote it back in 1940, with the most political verses—which over the years had been censored from the song—restored. If you watch the video, you can see his face light up with glee as he completes one of those restored verses:

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me,
Was a great big sign that read, ‘Private Property.’
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.

Things had come full circle.

Today, 90 years old, Seeger still lives with his wife Toshi in a cabin he built with his own hands in Fishkill, New York. And he’s still speaking up, and he’s still singing his songs.