I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s listening to The Weavers. At one time I believe I had all of their albums. How well I remember their rousing versions of songs like "Good Night Irene," "Tzena Tzena," and "This Land Is Your Land," among many others. Foremost among the quartet, of course, was Pete Seeger, with his 12-string guitar, his magical banjo, and the amazing range of his voice. How many singers could reach both the high and the low notes of the African chant "Wimoweh," which Pete sang with a passion and power unmatched by the later, commercialized version sung by another group and entitled "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"?
But it was more than their inspiring music that drew me to The Weavers and to Pete Seeger, who died on Monday at the ripe age of 94. It was their unwavering commitment, despite being demonized by unscrupulous politicians and others, to justice and to the exercise of that most basic American value of the right to free speech. After he left The Weavers, Pete's music helped to give strength to the civil rights movement, the peace movement, and the environmental movement. He marched with The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., sang at countless civil rights and peace rallies, and tackled the polluted Hudson River.
But he was so much more than a magnificent musician and a committed activist. He was, simply put, a remarkable human being. In some ways his ability to get us all singing with him helped to build a deep personal bond. But I actually only encountered him personally one time. That one time cemented my admiration for him for all time. Let me tell you what happened, how the Pete Seeger we saw in public demonstrated that he was the same man in private.
It was 1967, and I was teaching social studies at Yorktown High School in Westchester County, New York, just north of New York City. I also was the faculty adviser to the senior yearbook. A girl on the yearbook staff asked me if I'd support an invitation to Pete to give a benefit concert at Yorktown High School. He lived a proverbial "stone's throw" away in Beacon, New York. With some of his most prominent protest songs spinning in my head ("Little Boxes," "If I Had a Hammer,"), I enthusiastically agreed. The local board of education approved the request, Pete accepted the invitation, and the concert was set for February 1967.
To my surprise (I was amazingly naive), the impending concert created a firestorm of protest. Calls to the school principal and letters to the editor of the local newspaper charged that Pete was a communist sympathizer and would be a dangerous influence on malleable young minds. Demands to cancel the concert swirled about, including from faculty members who feared that the controversy could cost them salary increases in the next budget. The protests became so intense that the board of education called a special meeting to hear all views. I and a couple of other faculty members spoke in support of the invitation as a free speech issue and as a way of exposing students to controversial thought so they could learn to think for themselves. We were vastly outnumbered by those who demanded that the invitation be withdrawn and that the teachers and students responsible be punished. Following six hours of often heated debate into the wee hours of the morning, the board stood its ground and reaffirmed its approval of the invitation.
Living nearby, Pete was well aware of the controversy. But rather than publicly defend himself, his only response was to express concern about the effect of the controversy on the students. At least weekly during the month-long controversy, Pete called the student who had invited him to find out how she was doing, to express his moral support for her and her fellow students in the face of the overwhelming pressures they were enduring, and to ask if there was anything he could do to be helpful. His concern and compassion for the students inspired them and gave them the strength to persevere through the controversy.
On the night of the concert, despite heavy rain and a small band of water-logged protestors, the auditorium was packed. After the girl who had issued the invitation welcomed the audience and introduced the evening's main attraction, Pete ambled onto the stage to thunderous applause, banjo and 12-string guitar in hand. Without a word, he launched into a moving rendition of "America the Beautiful." The response was electric, as was, of course, the entire concert.
That's the Pete Seeger I'll always remember -- the man who made beautiful and inspirational music and who stood for what he believed, but more importantly, demonstrated his deep and unwavering caring for others. It goes without saying that we will miss him terribly, but in this case, at least, the good did not die young.
Michael Wenger is a Senior Fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Sociology at The George Washington University. This post is adapted from his memoir, My Black Family, My White Privilege: A White Man's Journey Through the Nation's Racial Minefield.