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Peter Alexander Meyers Headshot

Pete Seeger: America's Civic Apostle

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Paul Natkin via Getty Images
Paul Natkin via Getty Images

Most people pass the time of their life in less than a lifetime. Typical first years are spent revving up and last ones in the neutral gear of retirement and reminiscence. It takes rare fortune and fortitude to live, really and richly, in the full span. Especially if it reaches to a century. From youth to nearly his last breath, Pete Seeger was flat out alive.

What did his life show? This simple truth: no one lives alone. Of course, the common sights of retreat and privation, the pain of loneliness, seem to belie this; our own words and dreams will oft deny this. But -- mother, child, or laborer, thinker, banker, soldier, baker -- it is in the presence of and entanglement with others that life is, for better and for worse, what it is. A modest scribbler like me can sometimes find brute words to recall this fact. It was the genius of Pete Seeger to live this, what living actually is, in a way that did not scare people away from themselves, away from the duty to live.

Pete Seeger had two talents and a gift. The gift, surprisingly, was not simply his powerful charisma. In partnership with that he had an uncanny capacity to let himself be drawn into the webbed lives of others as much as his magnetic charm drew them to him.

Of talents, his first was an ability to bridge between words and music. It was not just that he could craft beautiful songs, although many of America's most cherished and sing-along ones took shape in his hands. Pete Seeger saw that wherever the voice is in play, speaking and singing can be a single thing. Think of the expression "to break into song" -- if you really want to know what it means, watch this video where description of the problems of "this old world" slips effortlessly into a lilting statement of living action in the melody "I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield." What Pete Seeger could do like no one else in living memory was to build bridges that spanned between everyday conversation and its reasons and a kind of singing that touches the heart and moves the feet.

Those bridges between words and music were so natural, such perfect crossings, that mostly we never noticed which side we were on. Pete Seeger's second talent was to make everything pop into focus by asking "which side are you on?" "Where have all the flowers gone?" His sort of music-making made each of his interlocutors -- which is to say every person who heard him sing and sang back -- stand up and take notice. First he would weave seamlessly together everyday speech and simple, powerful song; then with that just-the-right-moment kairos that is the living soul of charisma he would invite you and me to take note of our own place in the web, at once sonic and social, he was weaving. With just a wave of his hand -- a beckoning that flittered like a breath away from the strings of his banjo, an interrogative cupping of his ear, gestures of invitation, encouragement, and embrace -- Pete Seeger would make of his own song a viable, almost necessary, option for everyone within audible range (on YouTube you can almost see how this works, for example here. It required extraordinary effort not to sing with him. And as you sang, a swelling pervasive pitch bodied forth surrounding voices as well.

A decade after the Weavers, a decade after the blacklist, a score more years and the Sixties come and gone, we struggle not to forget what part Pete Seeger's talents played and still play in who we were and are becoming. Millions of Americans fell into thick complicity with him. It was "oh, there's old Pete -- sing-along time." As if public singing had always been our vocation, our birthright.

Once upon a time America sang mostly in church or at home if at all. Now, today, when we sing together it is mainly in the disciplined space of corporate concerts or franchise night clubs. Technology - the transistor radio, the Walkman, the iPod - has grown new configurations in our relationship to songs. We have moved from private ritual to a market-driven ventriloquism. The Voice is a television show. Somewhere in-between then and now an extraordinary alternative to both was produced by a movement better described as public culture than as explicitly political. Americans created a new civic space invested with singing (something other peoples elsewhere have sometimes had, but rarely us). Song for the citizen became what it had once been for the slave: a step towards liberation, a door into an unexpected and nearly impossible new world.

You want to know what really happened when Pete Seeger sang? Take this suggestive image from Pablo Neruda's poem Para Todos....

No hay silencio que no termine.
Cuando llegue el momento, espérame,
y que sepan todos que llego
a la calle, con mi violín.

There is no silence that doesn't end.
When the moment arrives, wait for me,
And let everyone know that I'm coming
To the street, with my violin.

Neruda dreamed a convergence of poetry and revolution. Pete Seeger performed something even more basic. Todos - everyone - meant for him especially everyone and their voice. It became a measure for the citizen to take literally. Why? Because the opposite of everyone is exclusion, and exclusion is, in some sense, a brutal sign of the deepest failure of civic life. This is not because every single person will or must "fit in," but because recourse to the act of exclusion shows that the elemental repertoire of civic relationships - the give and take, negotiation, adjustment, compromise involved in talking with strangers - has failed. Pete Seeger showed that civic inclusion is not exactly a right - it's a song. And it needs tuning more than it needs leadership. With a beckoning hand and banjo, proud posture projecting his earthy baritone, Pete Seeger accelerated over and over again the arrival of the end of silence.

Look closely at any older video of Pete Seeger playing and singing and talking with strangers. You will see the closed-mouth and parochial reticence of 1950s men and women. Even the young exude deference and blinkered imagination. Then, voice by voice and row by row, all this dissolves. In one human pixel after another, lit by the thumpety-thump and claw-hammered membranophone of the African and Appalachian and famous Seeger-necked banjo, a bigger picture comes into view as Pete Seeger invokes the human desire to sing, the need to hear and guide one's own voice as it springs forth on the balcony of the common world. Pete Seeger was born in 1919 but he tutored the growing generations of 1929 and 1939 and 1945 and 1954. His infectious voice was at first a premonition, then a manifestation, then a representation of the civic tide of the 1960s.

When my grandmother arrived at Ellis Island there were no airplanes. John Coltrane was dead before I was old enough to know that he had been playing just around the corner from where I lived. In 2008 I was haunted by such questions of biography and historical timing as I waited for the birth of my son. What gifts could I give him before the world changed irrevocably for his generation? One idea from my list went like this: some spring day I would take Alexi up the mighty Hudson to the town of Beacon; out of the blue, we would knock at Pete Seeger's door; Pete would greet him with a song and teach him something about his father's childhood world; after an interval of half a dozen decades my son would tell his children about that improbable day.

Of course, it turned out that once a child is born, once biography and history actually kick in, fantasies like this are dauntingly difficult to realize. The years were already racing by when a now familiar landmark for American pre-school kids came in sight. Alexi and his friends learned "This Land is Your Land" and "We Shall Overcome" and the "Garden Song." This provided a workable opportunity. I looked through the roster of summer music. Sure enough, there was the Clearwater Festival. And there was Pete Seeger.

On a Saturday last June we loaded ourselves into the car and drove for several hours. With the car parked just outside Croton Point Park, we lined up with other revelers waiting to pay for tickets. At the booth was a women with a big and welcoming smile. She took one look at Alexi, one look at me, and then another at my son. Rather than accepting our money, she said simply "this is your lucky day" and waved us through. Soon we were seated on the ground in an open field down by the riverside. Alexi sat on my lap. Most of the large crowd was behind us. About thirty feet forward, a shining and vivacious 94 year old man with a banjo and a voice worn to the bone sang his heart out. Alexi listened intently. Song after song, Pete Seeger worked his magic into the people around us. Alexi watched the response.

Pete Seeger's set was coming towards its end when several rising tones issued from the "machine" that "surrounds hate and forces it to surrender" -- that was the famous motto written on Pete Seeger's banjo. Out of the blue I heard a stream of small, sweet tones. The voice sang the words "to everything - turn, turn, turn... there is a season -- turn, turn, turn." But it wasn't Pete Seeger any more. It was my son. And like so many other grateful Americans, he will be singing this way for many years to come.