THE BLOG

Pete Seeger and the Power of Principle

02/03/2014 08:57 am ET | Updated Apr 05, 2014
  • Steven Cohen Executive Director, Columbia University's Earth Institute

Before there was a Federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1972 or a Clean Air Act or Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, in the summer of 1969, Pete Seeger and his friends had launched the sloop Clearwater, a sailing vessel, in an effort to build support for cleaning up America's waterways. According to the Clearwater's website:

Seeger planted the seed that started Hudson River Sloop Clearwater when he and a few friends, decided to "build a boat to save the river" with the belief that a majestic replica of the sloops that sailed the Hudson in the 18th and 19th centuries would bring people to the river where they could experience its beauty and be moved to preserve it.... Today, the sloop sails the Hudson River from New York City to Albany as a "Sailing Classroom", laboratory, musical stage, and forum. Since her launch, over half a million people have been introduced to the Hudson River estuary. ..Seeger and Hudson River Sloop Clearwater played an important role in the passage of laws to clean up the nation's waters. In 1972 Seeger and the Clearwater crew sailed the sloop to Washington, DC while Congress was debating the Clean Water Act. Seeger personally delivered a petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures to Congress and then proceeded to hold a spontaneous concert in the halls of Congress. A few weeks later the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was passed in 1972 over then President Richard Nixon's veto.

The romantic vision of environmental preservation in America in many ways began with Teddy Roosevelt and his friend, Sierra Club founder John Muir, and continued with the environmentalism of Pete Seeger. This spiritual and emotional connection to nature contributed to the development of a political movement to preserve the planet. As global economic development, toxic technology and population exploded over the past fifty years, the love of nature expressed by Seeger and Roosevelt has been supplanted by the sustainability perspective focused on the economic necessity of nature. In my opinion, it will take both views to hold back the relentless forces of destruction focused on short-term profits, regardless of the long-term costs.

You do not have to agree with every aspect of his politics to acknowledge Seeger's moral stature and greatness. His recent death at the age of 94 reminded many of us of his role in history and of his stubborn courage and sheer determination. Seeger understood the transformative role that art could play in our politics and society, and used song to communicate his sense of justice. But while he offered to play his music before Congress, in 1955 he refused to testify about his political views before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1957 he was indicted for contempt of Congress, and although his 1961 conviction on that charge was overturned, he was prepared to go to jail for what he believed in.

Bruce Springsteen captured Seeger's essence in his tribute at Pete Seeger's 90th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden. Springsteen related the story of the two of them at President Obama's first inaugural celebration:

That day as we sang "This Land Is Your Land," I looked at Pete, the first black president of the United States was seated to his right, and I thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken... It was like, "Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man!" It was so nice... And I asked him how do you want to approach "This Land Is Your Land?" It would be near the end of the show and all he said was, "Well, I know I want to sing all the verses, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote. Especially the two that get left out: about private property and the relief office." And I thought, of course, that's what Pete's done his whole life. He sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we'd like to leave out of our history as a people... despite Pete's somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism. Inside him he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade and it won't let him take a step back from the things he believes in. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country's illusions about itself. Pete Seeger still sings all the verses all the time, and he reminds us of our immense failures as well as shining a light toward our better angels and the horizon where the country we've imagined and hold dear we hope awaits us.

It is appropriate that two of America's greatest folk musicians and poets shared their art at that hopeful time. Springsteen's great empathy and understanding of Seeger's life, meaning and importance was both moving and, in retrospect, poignant.

As I think of Seeger and his life's work, like Springsteen, I am a little in awe of the man's great courage and his ability to live according to his principles over a long and productive life. From educating the world about the need to clean up the Hudson River to his anti-Vietnam War song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," Seeger understood the power of image, song and art. His version of "We Shall Overcome" became the anthem of the Civil Rights movement. In the end, it was his life itself that became his song, his image and his art. He reminds us of the need for community and for caring, and of the overwhelming need to sustain this planet and its people.

In this day of endless trivial news coverage, 140 character-long gossip, and 15 minutes of fame, it is heartening and reassuring to think of Seeger's life. His relentless work ethic and what Springsteen termed his "nasty optimism" are, in many respects, quintessentially American. His open acceptance and equally open rejection of communism and the assertion of his inalienable right to hold and express his political beliefs could have been made by any of this nation's founders.

Today's world of principle-free networkers, careerists, and ambitious climbers cannot help but take notice of his story, and perhaps we might all feel a little shame when we compare our own accomplishments to his. Of course, some elements of the world that Seeger tried to maintain are long gone. Even if we wanted to we could never buy 17 acres of land overlooking the Hudson for $1,700 and build a log cabin to live in. (OK, in today's dollars that would be closer to $18,000). But while the specifics may be unattainable, the honesty and ethical compass of his life provide a clear path and a model before each of us. Few of us are willing to take the type of risks Seeger took, but all of us should remember that moral courage is always an option. Principles have the power to create their own reality, and ethical and moral choices cannot always be viewed as luxuries. Perhaps they should never be viewed that way. Pete Seeger was far from perfect, but he worked hard to find the truth, understand it and live by it. His life was a lesson in the power of principle -- a lesson that all of us can learn from.