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Peter Dreier

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Honor Pete Seeger

Posted: 09/14/2012 10:43 am

"To everything, there is a season," according to Pete Seeger's song, "Turn, Turn, Turn," taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

This is the season for New Yorkers and all Americans to honor the 93-year old Seeger, who has devoted his life to educating Americans, and the world, about peace, social justice, the environment, and our country's folk tradition.

But the city of his birth has yet to honor him in a manner befitting his tremendous influence. New York City can begin by naming a school after America's greatest troubador.

And a global coalition of civic, political, and environmental leaders should nominate Seeger for the Nobel Peace Prize.

His legacy begins, of course, with music: The hundreds of songs Seeger has written or popularized as a member of The Weavers and as a solo artist.

Seeger has brought the world closer together with his music. He began introducing Americans to songs from other cultures, like "Wimowe" ("The Lion Sleeps Tonight") from Africa, "Tzena, Tzena" from Israel (which reached #2 on the pop charts), and "Guantanemera" from Cuba, inspiring what is now called "world music."

Every minute, someone in the world is singing a Pete Seeger song. They have been recorded by hundreds of artists in many languages. His songs promote the basic idea that the hopes that unite us are greater than the fears that divide us.

Seeger helped revise and popularized a Negro spiritual and turned "We Shall Overcome" into a civil rights standard and a global anthem for human rights. His introduced Americans to his friend Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," which has become our unofficial national anthem. His anti-war tunes "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and "If I Had a Hammer," helped inspire the 1950s battle against nuclear weapons and the 1960s movement against the Vietnam war.

A much-acclaimed and innovative guitarist and banjoist, a globe-trotting minstrel and song collector, and the author of many songbooks and musical how-to manuals, Seeger recorded and performed many forgotten songs that are now part of the standard American songbook, sung in schools around the country.

In addition to being a World War 2 veteran, Seeger has been on the front lines of every major social justice crusade during his lifetime -- labor unions and migrant workers in the 1930s and 1940s, the banning of nuclear weapons and opposition to the Cold War in the 1950s, civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s, environmental responsibility and opposition to South African apartheid in the 1970s, and, always, human rights throughout the world. From his 20s through his 90s, he's been a fixture on picket lines and at rallies for these causes.

From 1948 until 1951, as a member of the Weavers folk quartet, Seeger achieved commercial success, performing several chart-topping songs that reflected his eclectic repertoire. The group exposed audiences to their repertoire of songs from around the world as well as to American folk traditions.

He's seen his share of controversy. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Seeger was blacklisted for his left-wing views. Commercial television and radio networks banned Seeger and his songs.

But in response to being blacklisted, Seeger parlayed his talents into doing good. He taught guitar and banjo, played for schools and at summer camps, recorded albums for children, and helped start the Newport Folk Festival.

During those years, Seeger planted many seeds. The youngsters who heard him became political activists and spread the gospel of folk and protest music. More than anyone else, Seeger catalyzed the folk music revival that inspired the careers of performers like Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez -- and later Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello.

In the 1960s, Seeger showed great courage, traveling to Mississippi and Alabama to sing for civil rights activists and participate in marches. In a letter to Seeger, Rev. Martin Luther King thanked him for his "moral support and Christian generosity." In 1967 Tom and Dick Smothers invited Seeger onto their popular CBS television variety show, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. True to his principles, Seeger insisted on singing a controversial antiwar song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." CBS censors refused to air the song, but public outrage forced the network to relent and allow him to perform the song on the show a few months later.

Born in French Hospital in Manhattan in 1919, Pete has had a special relationship with New York. He lived in the city during the 1940s and early 1950s, when he was part of the Almanac Singers and then the Weavers. Then he moved to rural Beacon, an hour up the Hudson River, where he built his own log cabin house, where he's lived ever since.

The folk music revival was centered in Greenwich Village, where young people flocked to the many coffee houses and clubs to listen to performers inspired by Seeger. In 1965 and 1966, Seeger hosted a show, Rainbow Quest, on a small New York nonprofit television station that introduced its audience to many unknown or forgotten musicians performing then-little known genres such as bluegrass, blues, and old-time music. The station had a limited viewership at the time, but fortunately the programs were taped and are now available on YouTube.

In Beacon, another major strand of his legacy took root: environmental stewardship. In 1966, Seeger launched the nonprofit Clearwater project, dedicated to cleaning up the Hudson River. The effort, at first written off as simplistic and naive, helped inspire the environmental movement. The Hudson, once filled with oil pollution, sewage and toxic chemicals, is now swimmable.

Through persistence and unrelenting optimism, Seeger endured and overcame the controversies triggered by his activism. In 1994, at age 75, he received the National Medal of Arts (the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the U.S. government) as well as a Kennedy Center Honor, when President Bill Clinton called him "an inconvenient artist, who dared to sing things as he saw them." In 1996 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because of his influence on so many rock performers. In 1997 he won the Grammy Award for his eighteen-track compilation album, Pete.

Some of the nation's most prominent singers have recorded albums honoring Seeger, including Springsteen's Seeger Sessions. In May 2009 more than 15,000 admirers filled New York City's Madison Square Garden for a concert honoring Seeger on his 90th birthday.

Later this month Seeger will release two new albums. A More Perfect Union features 16 original songs written with singer-songwriter Lorre Wyatt and includes duets with Springsteen, Tom Morello, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and others. The two-CD Pete Remembers Woody honors his friend as part of the centennial celebration of Guthrie's birth. A just-released book, Pete Seeger In His Own Words -- drawing on Pete's unpublished letters, journals, and notes as well as excerpts of his articles and books -- chronicles his remarkable life and the fascinating people whose lives he touched.

Probably no song reflects Pete's indomitable spirit more than "Quite Early Morning," which he sang on the Colbert Report last month. Seeger wrote the song in 1969, in the midst of the Vietnam War, to inspire people to keep the faith that a better world is possible, even in the midst of suffering and setbacks. One stanza goes:

And so keep on while we live
Until we have no, no more to give
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger

Before Seeger's fingers can strum no longer, let's honor his life and legacy by naming a New York City public school after this remarkable figure and mobilizing a campaign to nominate Seeger for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Peter Dreier teaches politics at Occidental College and is author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. A short version of this column appeared in the New York Daily News.

 

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