Photo: ITV/REX USA.
Pete Seeger sang songs for 94 years. 94 years is a long time to be doing anything, but somehow with him it wasn’t nearly long enough.
My first memories of his music coincide with my first memories of music. My parents played his records and read his children’s books to me and my sister from a very young age. We were captivated by the lively stories, the beautiful melodies, and the blissful sense of life that fills every word and every note.
As often happens with youthful impressions, my understanding of Pete Seeger changed greatly as I got older. The primacy of his music was replaced by my interest in folk music as a genre and the revival movement that accompanied the enormous groundswell of social consciousness in the later 20th century. In this, as well, Pete Seeger served me as a guide. From the HUAC blacklists to environmental activism on the Hudson River, he has proven not only the power of song to unite people behind common goals, but more importantly, the essentiality of music in the life of a healthy and productive community.
In a year that has seen folk music remodeled in the popular imagination by today’s pessimism and existential angst (Inside Llewyn Davis), Pete Seeger’s death should remind us that far from the isolation of the melancholic singer-songwriter, American folk music is fundamentally about the preservation and support of the community, both as a whole and in parts. This is not an attitude that was born with the communist, folk revivalist, or "hippie" movements, but instead stretches back into the annals of American history. Wherever folks settled, no matter where they came from, they brought music. And, this music changed, morphed, joined together to create new forms and new ideas that met the challenges of life in the very new and very hostile world. This new music, which we can appreciate in large part because of people like Pete Seeger, his father Charles Seeger, and a whole host of ethnomusicologists who preserved it for us, functioned simultaneously to proclaim the individuality of the performer and to provide common ground in the remarkably heterogeneous communities of the American frontier.
Pete Seeger taught us that music, and especially folk music, still can serve this dual function: to empower the individual and to unite the group. And, he was, if anything, a consummate teacher; it is an oft-quoted Seegerism that his book How to Play the Five-String Banjo was his proudest achievement. We should remember him for this dedication to old forms, and his ability to make them new again. We should remember him for his unique and profound optimism, his belief in the power of people to positively impact their environment (both social and ecological). We should remember him most of all for his constant and unfailing commitment to music as an art form, as a history, and as the most perfect language.