04/21/2014 05:40 pm ET Updated Jun 21, 2014

Across Race, Generation: Pete Seeger and Ending Poverty


A good song can only do good, and I am proud of the songs I have sung." - Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger knew the power of song. Through it, he influenced generations of people across the country and world. He was one of the few artists to take the power of music and use it to inspire people to move America toward a more equitable society.

He represented the effectiveness of the singing word, as opposed to the use of fists and guns, and his activism was as effective as his singing. He worked with major movements of the 20th and 21st centuries -- labor rights, civil rights, peace and environmental justice.

Music is one of the few things in life that brings people together regardless of economic background, race, gender, religion, education or sexual orientation. It can even cause a convening of people from different countries and languages. Harmony can cause people who have never met before to start to match that harmony in song. Trying to match the harmony of a song can translate to different people coming together for something desired in all communities -- real and positive change.

Pete Seeger first came to the Highlander Center in 1940 with fellow folk singer Woody Guthrie. They were visiting Guthrie's family in Texas and were advised "to take a detour and swing by this place in Tennessee." Seeger said he was "mightily impressed" and found there "real people finding a real voice and learning how to use it."

Seeger came back to Highlander several times over the years, including once catching a bus on a weekend pass while stationed in the Army in Alabama in 1944 and leading the singing at Highlander's 25th anniversary in 1957. On that occasion, he met this "powerful, young man," Martin Luther King Jr.

Seeger first came into the hearts of younger people through the PBS show "Reading Rainbow." On a particular episode, he sang the words to a book he had written about a South African folktale called "Abiyoyo." That episode was the perfect way of connecting young people to the past. He was unapologetic about illustrating current issues through song, and he was actually successful with that message.

Seeger's passing this year, in the year of significant civil and human rights' 50th anniversaries, is a reminder of what we have gained and the work still ahead of us. One of those anniversaries is the War on Poverty. It is a poignant part of remembering Seeger as his singing reached for the humanity, the fairness, the justice, the equal voice for America's families and communities.

"Well I got a hammer and I got a bell and I got a song to sing all over this land. It's the hammer of justice, it's the bell of freedom. It's a song about love between my brothers and my sisters..."

- Pete Seeger

The War on Poverty was a multi-tiered supported by the President Johnson administration to reduce the U.S. poverty rate, which at the time was 26 percent. Despite historic and current day efforts to discredit the War on Poverty, numerous studies hold its benefits and lift up the role of government accountable to its people in helping meet the needs of the most vulnerable.

The War on Poverty expanded Social Security, created Medicare and Medicaid, moved food stamps from a pilot to a permanent one, created Head Start, Job Corps and VISTA. They are programs that -- despite attacks -- continue today. It also established the Office of Economic Opportunity, which was gutted in the mid-1970s and dismantled in 1981. The civil rights movement deserves much credit for the actions taken to address poverty for all races during this time.

Out of the civil rights movement, early hip-hop addressed the poverty and struggles of inner-city youth in the 1980s and 1990s. Most of those songs dealt with troubling issues of the day stemming from drug abuse to gang violence and police brutality. They had the microphone to use as a weapon as Seeger did with his banjo. Rappers like Nas knew that he only needed "One Mic" to bring about change. The 1980s and 1990s were full of protest songs that gave the masses a sense of reflection to decide what to do.

Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" was the essential song to question our current systems of oppression and empowered youth to have a more socially conscious mind in a time where drugs infiltrated the streets. "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five gave America a reflection of how drugs destroyed families in the African-American community.

The risk-taking in Seeger's music also could be seen in Tupac Shakur's creative work. He was unapologetic in his passion to use music to not only illuminate America's ills but to confront those ills, as well. Tupac's "Trapped" questioned the use of police brutality and the prison industrial complex. For his efforts, Dan Quayle, vice president at the time, said, "There's no reason for a record like this to be released. It has no place in our society."

Folk music and rap music have many parallels. Artists from both genres have a sense of awareness and know the urgency of laying out the message of the times through storytelling. Artists from both genres also faced confrontations with the government from Seeger being blacklisted for Communism to rappers being accused of glorifying violence that existed long before rap. They knew how much impact their music made with the youth and how the status quo saw those artists as dangerous. Seeger's "Take it from Dr. King" about protesting the Iraq War goes along well with Talib Kweli's "The Proud," which questioned the reasoning behind the "War on Terror." Both knew that the world will change through grassroots organizing by the people, no matter how "small" they are.

"Song, songs, kept them going and going;

They didn't realize the millions of seeds they were sowing.

They were singing in marches, even singing in jail.

Songs gave them the courage to believe they would not fail"

- Pete Seeger

"Welcome to the world, we here

We've been at, war for years but it's much more clear

We got to face what lies ahead

Fight for our truth and freedom and, ride for the dead" - Talib Kweli

Pete Seeger thought that small organizations doing what needs to be done have the ability to change the world. Those small organizations, as well as families and communities, help us add up to something bigger through our work together, tackling similar and new battle lines in today's continued War on Poverty. With more than 46 million people living in poverty in the U.S., including 9.2 million families, Seeger and the War on Poverty are reminders of what can be accomplished when families and communities build strength to hold government accountable to its people instead of corporate interests.

These days, too much popular music is confined to commercialism and lack of depth, which could be contributed to artists not taking risk to use their gifts for the greater good. The notion that audiences now would not accept a singer-activist belies the fact that many of the most well-known artists were deep in the movements of their day. In the 1950s and 1960s and into the 1970s, it was common for popular artists to infuse social justice into music. In addition to Seeger and Woody Guthrie, there was Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Too much music now tends to emphasize more fun than focus, more vanity than veracity. Seeger's story is evidence that when used in the right way, music makes you move to the sounds and then moves you into thought. That moves you into action.

At the Highlander Center, we are still known for putting singing into movement building. Highlander has worked at that nexus of art, culture and social change throughout its history from its earliest years -- when Zilphia Johnson arrived in east Tennessee from Arkansas, married Highlander founder Myles Horton and integrated music, plays and dance into all aspects of Highlander's work -- to today.

As Pete Seeger's singing names some of the challenges we face, his music also gives us solutions as seen in his call-and-response song for the collective will and staying power we need in this work together for justice, fairness and equality. For equal voice.

One day, one day

I was walking along,

And I spied a little child,

Just a-singing a song

About haulin' together,

And keepin' in time.

Hauling on a halyard,

Making up a rhyme.

It's a long haul

It's a high haul

It's a job for the many

Not just for the few

It's a job for everybody

That's me and you.

- Pete Seeger