Happy Birthday Pete Seeger! | james ford
Peter Seeger was born on this day, May 3, in Manhattan, 1919.
He would become a staple of the folk scene for most of the 20th century and a mainstay of the social justice movement. Going through my files, I see that I’ve written about him a dozen times on my blog. He certainly held an important place in my life.
Pete died eight years ago, in 2014. Everything passes, even the memories. But he should be remembered for as long as possible as the voice of American conscience. Much of what he sang, both our failures and our aspirations, are still with us.
The following is taken from those older reflections…
Pete was an old American family of English and German descent. His father Charles was a composer and musicologist. His mother Constance was a concert violinist and later a teacher at Juilliard.
Charles had been employed by the University of California to establish their music department, but was forced to resign the year before Pete was born due to his outspoken pacifism during the Great War. Charles and Constance divorced when Pete was seven, with his father assuming parental duties for all three sons. In 1932, his father married composer Ruth Crawford. They would have four other children.
Pete’s first instrument was the ukulele. But after hearing a five-string banjo in 1936, he dedicated himself to mastering the instrument.
Pete attended Harvard, but dropped out without graduating. He had played banjo and sung, and had spent a summer touring with the Vagabond Puppeteers. Music was more and more his life. Critically, he landed a job as an assistant to musicologist Alan Lomax while archiving “race” and “hillbilly” music for the Library of Congress. Lomax encouraged young Pete to consider pursuing his ever-growing interest in folk music.
Pete married Toshi Aline Ota in 1943. They remained married until his death in 2013. They had four children. Their first, Peter Ota, died months after birth. Their second Daniel will become a photographer and filmmaker, then Mika, potter and muralist, and Tinya, also a potter.
He has always been politically active. At age 17, he joined the Communist Youth League and later joined the Communist Party of America. Although slow to realize the horrors of Stalin’s regime, he eventually does and quits the party. But he never abandoned his socialist sense of justice. According to Wikipedia “In a 1995 interview…he insisted that ‘I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia has made of it than Christianity is what the churches do.’” He remained a social justice activist for the rest of his life.
During the war, Pete joined the army and served in the Pacific Theater. At first he was a mechanic, but when they saw his musical abilities surpass his mechanics, he was put in charge of entertaining the troops.
Her life has been dedicated to workers’ rights, racial reconciliation, women’s rights, ecological concerns, those whose rights have been violated, the lost and forgotten. And his music will inspire several generations, borrowing the spectrum of the folk musical genre, but always also with a sense of social justice. He was a founding member of the Almanac Singers and then, when they were reconstituted, of the Weavers.
During the McCarthy era, Pete was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He declined to take the Fifth Amendment, but also declined to name personal and professional associates. He claimed it violated his First Amendment rights. He was indicted for contempt of congress and sentenced to between one and ten years in prison. However, on appeal, the conviction was overturned.
He was then one of the main players in the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. And so on.
Asked about religion, and in particular its vision of God, Wikipedia gives its answer.
“Nobody knows for sure. But people definitely have feelings that are inexplicable and they feel like they are talking to God or talking to their parents who are long dead. I feel more spiritual when I’m in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or watch the stars. [I used to say] I was an atheist. Now I say, everything is according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I am not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Every time I open my eyes, I look at God. Every time I listen to something, I listen to God. I’ve had gospel preachers, Presbyterians, and Methodists, say, “Pete, I think you’re a very spiritual person. And maybe I am. I feel strongly that I’m trying to cheer people up to come together. … I tell people that I don’t think God is an old white man with a long white beard and no navel; nor do I think that God is an old black woman with white hair and no navel. But I think God is literally everything, because I don’t believe anything can come out of nothing. And so there has always been something. It’s always long.”
For those interested in such things, Pete joined the Unitarian Universalist congregation, Community Church, in Manhattan in 1992.
Pete Seeger died on January 27, 2014. He was 94 years old.
He was a treasure of our human heart and of our aspirations.
May he live on in all our memories…