Clip: Remembering Activist and Folk Singer Pete Seeger

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Pete Seeger, musician, songwriter

Pete Seeger performs during the Farm Aid 2013 concert at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

Pete Seeger, who has died at age 94, will be remembered as a musician and activist who over a career spanning seven decades used his spirited voice to inspire political and social change.

As recently as 2011, Seeger, a veteran of the labor, peace and civil rights movements, led an Occupy Wall Street protest through Manhattan. “Be wary of great leaders,” he said two days after the march. “Hope that there are many, many small leaders.”

Seeger played a key role in the folk music revival that began in the 1950s and helped create songs that served as the backdrop for the tumultuous events of the 1960s, including “We Shall Overcome,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “If I had a Hammer.”

During the Great Depression, Pete Seeger and his friend Woody Guthrie traveled together from town to town, Seeger with his banjo and Guthrie with his guitar, singing songs in exchange for meals. Later, Seeger came to New York where he played in support of unions and against fascism. Throughout his life, and especially during the McCarthy era, Seeger’s folk songs and affiliations with the left, attracted the attention of those in power who branded Seeger a dangerous radical.

In this clip from a 1994 interview, Seeger tells Bill that music has a power that, even after decades of playing it, he still doesn’t fully understand. “All I know,” he says, “is that throughout history, the leaders of countries have been very particular about what songs they want sung, so some people, beside me, must think songs do something.”

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  • andrea salsedo

    A beautiful & tender moment

  • Joan Harris

    “Where have all the flowers gone, gone to graveyards, everyone. When will they ever learn…..”. Rest in peace sweet man.

  • http://oldgaylawyer.blogspot.com/ Eamon O’Connor

    An amazing prophet a Troubadour for Justice and Peace. Rest in peace.

  • Strawman411

    It always brings Pete to mind when I hear that call to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”

  • Anonymous

    I remember hearing that live album for the first time, where he teaches a nervously laughing and someone shy audience the lyrics and by the end of the song he is wailing and they are wailing, and it’s one of the most awesome things I’ve ever heard, and I am so sad to hear that he’s passed, but gd, he sure did have a good long haul.

  • Anonymous

    Your transition means much in terms of our recent musical history on social change. Thank you for all the great tunes, RIP Pete….

  • http://www.circumstitions.com/ Hugh7

    We are and we know it. From the Weavers in the 50s, when McCarthyism kept his name off the label, through the anti-nuclear (and for you in the US, civil rights) 60s and the anti-Vietnam-war 70s, Seeger’s voice was there, archetypal and on the right side.

  • http://www.circumstitions.com/ Hugh7

    “In prison cell and dungeon vile, our thoughts to them are winging…” It would be nice if there were a Heaven where Nelson Mandela and Pete Seeger could share songs and memories, but both were very aware that the world is not based on what would be nice. We have to make it so.

  • Anonymous

    I loved his songs, but won’t forget that he was a long-time member of the Communist Party and supported Stalin. He also visited North Vietnam like Jane Fonda.

  • Andy Trimble

    He was a foolish man who wrote a few inspiring songs. He will be judged for the evil his associations and message brought upon our society.

  • Anonymous

    Communism like all parties are as good as the people in charge. He was 17 what do you want from him?

  • Anonymous

    Evil?

  • Andy Trimble

    Yes. People like you have been poisoned by his secular humanist “pan flute”

    The progressive movement that is destroying the moral underpinnings and economic strength of our country was spawned by men of his ilk.

  • Paula Blanchette

    OMG…so always amazed at folks like you that could find fault with anyone…except the people who really need to be scrutinized.

  • Anonymous

    He only ‘denounced’ Stalin two years ago in the New York Sun. Took him long enough.

  • Anonymous

    Is Jimmy still entitled to crack corn?

  • nick

    Being a member of the “Communist Party” has never meant approving of human rights abuses or any of the other atrocities committed by governments claiming to be communistic in nature.

    When these leaders come to power they always lie (as do governments claiming to be democratic in nature, let us not forget) in order to gain support. It’s simply a fact that the majority of the people in the world (the majority of people in most countries) are the disenfranchised poor and quasi-poor. Anyone who manages to manipulate that constituency acquires a broad base of support; when you tell hungry people you’re going to feed them, they want to follow you.

    Nobody knew what the people who got into power were actually going to do, and again, let us not forget that we have war criminals operating freely in our own supposedly “democratic” societies. But they, unlike Stalin et al, are still victors and therefore not held accountable for their actions.

    It’s reactionary and short sighted to associate dictators with philosophies they use like tools. Should we say that “capitalist democracy” is inherently wicked because leaders espousing the philosophy presided over the Trail of Tears? Or lynchings? Or what about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II? Are these inherently capitalist democratic actions, or are they inherently corrupt governmental actions which might be taken by any government espousing any philosophy?

    It’s perfectly possible for capitalism to be the problem without Stalin being the only solution.

    Let’s break free of the past, as Bill has suggested in other contexts, and stop blindly marginalizing ideas by relentlessly associating them with the war criminals who co-opted them for personal gain. It’s in everyone’s best interest that we seriously consider different ways of distributing the wealth of the world.

    Pete knew about the atrocities being committed by his own government and other supposed democracies in the clutch of capitalism. If he was naive about the atrocities that would later be committed by other governments promising to resolve economic inequality, I think we can forgive him. If he desired economic equality, he needs no forgiveness. Indeed, we should remember him with the fondness and appreciation his valuable contribution to populism and humanism deserves.

    Thank you, Pete, for giving us another humanist-populist-socialist mentor to learn and draw strength from. The climate is so chilly and hostile toward those who recognize what’s going on and refuse to remain silent about it, there are few willing to live their lives branded as outlaws in order to speak for those of us who are too afraid or too confused to speak for ourselves.

  • Anonymous

    What does that mean?

  • Anonymous

    Wrong. Do a tiny bit of research.

  • Anonymous

    Do you know what Communism means?

  • Anonymous

    I do not know what happens after Earth death but what if he doesn’t want to rest?

  • Chad Chadwick

    That’s wonderful!

  • Anonymous

    He actually quit the Communist party because it supported the Soviet Union and what Stalin had done to it. In his words, he was a “small c” communist.

  • Anonymous

    I’m sure the nuance of being a member of the Communist Party but later in life denouncing Stalin was lost on those in the gulag or or those ‘voluntarily’ standing in rallies for hours freezing to death to applaud foreign fellow travelers who visited the Soviet Union and demoralized the oppressed masses with their blindness.

  • burghardt

    Just I suppose as the nuance of arguing that supporting the bombing of Vietnam in the belief that this was a defense of democracy, but later acknowledging that the war itself was misguided at best was lost on the untold numbers of Vietnamese non-combatants who lost their lives as a result. Or as the nuance of Southern politicians and business elites supporting a Jim Crow segregation system that was an unholy terror for millions of African Americans, but later admitting, in the wake of civil rights movement triumphs, the error of their ways was lost on those who were lynched, exploited, wrongly convicted, and consigned to second class citizenship. Or as the nuance of presiding over apartheid but then assisting in South Africa’s transition to “one person/one vote” government” was lost on Black Africans and dissidents of all races who suffered under that regime. People have the right to admit their mistakes, which doesn’t mean that the mistakes will be forgotten. And while Seeger and others may have naively defended Stalinism, they were not engaged in brutalizing and oppressing people in this country, but were rather, in the main, ahead of the curve on civil rights, women’s rights, the right of workers to organize into unions, and worthy features of the welfare state such a Social Security, the G.I. Bill, medicaid, and so on.

  • nick

    With respect, I find your position difficult to understand.

    You seem to be saying that having ever been a member of any Communist Party in any country somehow contributed to the abuse of people living under a tyrannical regime that was communistic in name only. Is that an accurate reflection of your position?

    If so, you might illuminate — in precisely what way were people who believed passionately in economic equality responsible for the actions of someone who took advantage of their idealism for personal political gain? Is it somehow immoral simply to want economic equality? Or is your position that Senator McCarthy (he’s just a symbol of course) was right in claiming that no one anywhere truly believed in economic equality, that “communism” is always a ruse for subjugation?

    In which case, what is it that you think, for example, those here on this site who have expressed what might be termed “communist sympathies” are “really” after? Governor George Wallace’s relentless insistence that the SCLC’s civil rights campaign in Alabama was in actuality a communist plot (yes, he really said that, on numerous occasions) comes to mind. As does the current hysterical, islamaphobic notion that if we don’t pre-emptively bomb and brutally occupy various Middle Eastern nations, we’re all doomed to live under Sharia law someday. When you ask, “Nevermind how any islamically-run nation would possibly accomplish a wholesale takeover of the United States — why would they want to?” you get answers on the logical order of, “Because they hate our freedom.”

    You seem to also be saying that people should somehow have been able to anticipate that Stalin was lying about his values and intentions, for which there might (possibly) be some legitimate argument, but more than that, you seem to be saying that anyone who calculated incorrectly should forever after be considered morally bankrupt? Again, is this accurate? What about every white person who tolerated segregation before 1965 in the United States? Are they all permanent moral failures? Do you honestly believe these are individual questions, extricable from the social, political and institutional forces at play in the world?

    Some excluded but relevant factors (in my view):

    1) Many American communists and socialists got very excited when politicians in Europe and Asia started talking about “the people” and promising economic and social equality. As did many European and Asian communists. There had been no Cold War yet, no Cultural Revolution, no freezing to death at rallies. Their own governments were ruthlessly bent on using the guise of a “free market” system to keep the wealth where it belonged — in the hands of the wealthy few who had enjoyed the privilege of their circumstance from the inception of the United States. Of course systems are anything but free — business has always enjoyed very favorable laws restricting the rights of the consumer but not the corporation, large government subsidies not available to a public fighting to maintain any semblance of a welfare system, in addition to a disproportionate ability to influence legislation and the workings of power (because how many of us can by advertising time during the Super Bowl?).

    On a side note, the People’s History of the United States offers a fairly brutal blow-by-blow of exactly how the business elite amassed their fortunes at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lives of factory, farm and railroad workers who were often barely able to buy enough food to keep their families alive. Why do we not hold the US Presidents presiding over these atrocities accountable in the way that we do Stalin? Because Stalin lost, of course.

    This, folks, is capitalism. And this is what American communists, going back to the industrial revolution, fondly wished to end. When future dictators, then merely politicians, promised to do just that, the ears of the world pricked up, daring valiantly to hope. It’s terribly sad, and American communists were victims of those abominable lies, as were the downtrodden of Russia and Asia who might have believed, if only briefly, that things would improve for them.

    2) Once you realize that your government is lying to you to preserve its own skin, in the pockets of bankers who relentlessly market their money-makes-right ideologies, a funny thing happens. You start to notice that what the government, what the media, what the business community decries tends to be those things which threaten the status quo. If you’ve come to the conclusion (as many, many have, throughout the history of modern western democracy) that the status quo is unacceptable, you find yourself attracted to whatever makes Power nervous. Most of the time you find yourself on more certain ethical and humane footing the farther you walk away from what Power wants.

    That’s what a lot of people like Jane Fonda and Pete Seeger (and many, many others) were doing, with good reason. If occasionally Power gets crafty and disguises itself as its opposite, we should wag the Finger of Shame at Power for being deceitful in addition to greedy and abusive. More victim blaming plays right into the hands of those who would have us all blame ourselves for our lack of economic (and sometimes physical) security, rather than placing responsibility where it belongs, on those who would leech from us anything and everything we’re prepared to part with for their own enrichment.

    Naturally the United States government and business communities (because let’s face it — the government has never been of all or even most of the people — it has always gone to the highest bidder) loathe the notion of communism, precisely because it empowers workers (the majority of the population of the world). In fact it’s rather incredible that they’ve managed to keep us all from getting together and saying, “Hey — we do all the work, they get all the money AND the fruits of our labor — why do we stand for it?”

    The way they do it, of course, is by convincing us that joining the Communist Party kills starving children in Russia. They do it by convincing us that distinctions like membership or lack thereof in any political or social group draws a line between one person and another, separating their economic and political interests, making them adversaries. They do it by convincing us that people who are a different color, or come from a different country, or are a different gender or sexual orientation, or do a different type of work have no common cause together.

    It’s tremendously sad to me that 65 years after HUAC, we still believe their lies without even realizing that they come from outside ourselves.

  • Anonymous

    And after all these years of the horrors of Communist regimes, people are still apologizing for this ideology.

  • mica

    Nick, Thank-you for your well thought out response. I agree.

    I think for me … whether I were a republican, democrat, communist, or whatever affiliation I claim … I can’t imagine not feeling an appreciation for a man who follows his dreams, is unafraid to share his philosophies, and brave enough to live by his beliefs regardless of the outcome. For these reasons … above all else … he was inspirational to me & so many.