That Pete Seeger is dead seems impossible. He was supposed to be here forever.
His voice, and his banjo, occupied much of 20th century American history. It was not always the strongest voice, for it was often drowned out – and at times forcefully silenced – by those who didn’t like its message. And yet it was, in the end, more powerful than the others for the way that it survived, braiding itself through our history and our culture, transforming it in ways we have only begun to understand.
I saw Pete Seeger play on the day before Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Accompanied by Bruce Springsteen, he was the final performer in a concert held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Hundreds of thousands were gathered around the reflecting pool and back toward the Washington Monument. When he walked out and said, “You sing it with us. We’ll give you the words,” and then strummed his banjo, the sound was crystal clear, a clarion call across the city.
He picked out the first notes of “This Land is Your Land.” The crowd had listened, fragmented, to all the different performers who had come before. Now, everyone sang.
His musical career with The Weavers stifled during the political repression of the 1950s, Seeger had always found one place where his music could be heard: schools. Kept from the airwaves, his music infused classrooms full of little kids. We learned to sing the songs, which was even better than hearing them on the radio, the message coming through us.
We didn’t always learn all the words: Playing at the Lincoln Memorial for Obama, Seeger sang the full version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” with a series of radical verses I hadn’t heard before. Doing so, it seemed, he gleefully reminded us that ultimately he had never been silenced. His presence there that day, on the steps of a monument whose sonic history stretched back to Marian Anderson singing in 1939 and Martin Luther King speaking in 1963, was a kind of homecoming.
The miracle he performed that day – that he had performed again and again over the decades – was to turn music into power. Facing the House Unamerican Activities Commission in 1955, he was asked: “What is your profession or occupation?” “I make my living as a banjo picker – sort of damning, in some people’s opinion,” he replied.
It was as a banjo-picker that, in church basements and folk clubs and elementary schools, on records played and replayed, that he wound his way into our consciousness. “His performances,” writes professor Robert Cantwell, “have changed lives.” He saw himself above all, writes Seeger biographer Alec Wilkinson, as “an implement for delivering song.”
Charismatic, he was also in a way awkward, and always foregrounded the song itself, the way it traveled through him, the way in which it only gained meaning when sung – as his version of “We Shall Overcome” came to be – by a community acting together on behalf of their imagination, in the service of a new world.
The banjo Pete played has a message on it: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” It was a gentler version of the slogan that decorated Woody Guthrie’s guitar: “This machine kills fascists.”
The banjo always accompanied Pete: The instrument in many ways made him, and he remade the instrument. The son of the musicologist and composer Charles Seeger, Pete grew up in New York and Washington, went to boarding school and attended Harvard for a time. He first played the banjo in a jazz band, but it was his encounter with the music of the South, during a journey with his father, that hooked him.
His banjo had a special long neck – it was, like him, lanky – and, thanks to him, an instrument that in many ways had gone out of fashion was suddenly all the rage among college kids and aspiring musicians. But Pete knew exactly what he was doing: In picking up the banjo, he tapped directly into the heart of American music.
The instrument’s sound had already traveled a long way – from Africa to the Caribbean and North America, first created on plantations by the enslaved, then turned into “America’s instrument” and mass-produced in the 19th century. It had sounded in ragtime and jazz and in the mountains of Appalachia and the dances of the Piedmont. When Seeger picked it up, he channeled that history, and somehow – along with his inimitable voice – it sounded precisely like America.
Laurent Dubois is the Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History at Duke University.