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Jenkins: Pete Seeger was courage, put to music

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comJanuary 29, 2014 

I met him 30 or so years ago, while he was unloading his guitars and his banjo out in back of Aycock Auditorium in Greensboro. “Thanks for the music, and everything,” I said, extending my hand. He smiled, returned his, went about the business of preparing for that evening’s concert.

Pete Seeger was tall, looking more than the 6’2” he was said to be, and reed-thin but had about him the kind of sinewy muscle of a man who’s chopped wood and helped to build houses.

Then, he would have been in his 60s, and if anyone had said he’d still be playing 30 years later, I wouldn’t have bet against it. Pete Seeger kept going thanks to good health, friendships the world over, legions of disciples in popular music and a righteous anger at injustice of any variety. Yes, there’s the word for him: righteous.

It’s a word that will be heard often in the coming days, following his death Monday at 94. His grandson reported to his eulogists that Seeger had been chopping wood only 10 days before.

Of course. Chopping wood and thinking still about humankind and how to make it a cleaner, more enlightened and better world.

To liberals, he was iconic, a mentor, an example, a person of tremendous personal courage. He earned it.

In the mid 1950s, he was charged with contempt of Congress after an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, when he defiantly refused to answer questions he deemed none of the committee’s business. He was blacklisted. The committee, of course, was long ago discredited, and Seeger survived by playing his music all over the country.

Many who visit New York City and tour Greenwich Village, looking at the shuttered clubs where Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton and Peter, Paul and Mary played reckon it to be the birthplace of folk music. It was, in a way, but Pete Seeger really helped start the movement long before Dylan and the others came along in the 1960s, a history the others do not deny.

Many learned at the knee of Pete Seeger, the knee on which rested the banjo with the head that read, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” His friend Woody Guthrie had traveled with Seeger and on his guitar wrote, “This machine kills fascists.” They were, both of them, unapologetic in standing up for the poor, for labor, for minorities.

Righteous. Even the songs were righteous, or maybe it should be that especially they were. Consider “If I Had a Hammer,” which included the lines: “I’d hammer in the morning, I’d hammer in the evening, all over this land...it's the hammer of justice, it's the bell of freedom, it's the song about love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.”

Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” became an anthem for the peace movement, and his version of “We Shall Overcome” helped make the anthem of a civil rights struggle a song known by all.

That Seeger lived so long must have griped those who had a bellyfull of his liberal politics no end. That night in Greensboro, he sang the old songs, accompanied mainly by that banjo, but he added a few current ones, including a tune about Ronald Reagan in which he tried to get the audience to sing along with a chorus that included the line, “This old man should go back home...”

The popularity of those at whom he aimed his musical barbs did not matter to Seeger, who remained unrepentant for his views until the end. In 2011, he even participated in the “Occupy” movement in New York, walking two miles. Righteous. Apparently, it has something to do with longevity.

Seeger admitted a long-ago flirtation with communism, which caused some to repudiate him for lifetime. But the truth was he left it behind long ago, and devoted himself to more than liberal politics, though he was hardly shy about that. He fought, for example, to clean up New York’s Hudson River, and stood with those who campaigned for other environmental causes.

He instilled in those who followed him in the folk era a commitment to causes, for civil rights, against war, possessed of a skepticism toward government. They learned. The next generation did, too. Bruce Springsteen today carries on Seeger’s crusades through rock ‘n’ roll, expressing his friendship for and admiration of Seeger in every arena in the world.

A country needs Pete Seegers, people who agitate, who ask the questions politicians don’t want to answer, who demand of their fellow citizens that they address questions about civil rights, for example, that it would be easier to leave unanswered. Seeger’s road was not the easy one, but it was the righteous one. Communist? Not hardly. Patriot is more like it.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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