Pete Seeger: A Song About Freedom

The music of Pete Seeger has formed a big part of the soundtrack of the lives of Americans, especially anyone involved in the peace, civil rights and environment movements. With his joyous passionate voice he inspired countless activists including me to join in singing and join the struggles for justice. You’ll probably know some of his songs such as “Where have all the flowers gone?”, “If I had a Hammer” or “This little light of mine”. But his great gift was sharing the music of the American people, usually playing the 5 string banjo which he’d inscribed, in a riff on Woody Guthrie’s “This Machine Kills Fascists”, with the words “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” For Pete getting people to sing together was the way to make peace and folks couldn’t help but join when he sang.

Pete dropped out of Harvard and while working at the Library of Congress with the musicologist Alan Lomax collecting folk songs he met Woody Guthrie. Pete had joined the Communist Party in the late 30’s though he later left. Although known later for opposing the Vietnam war Pete was not a pacifist. Rather his consistent focus was his passion for justice. And, perhaps less understood, he was a patriot and was in the US Army during World War 2. But, called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 Pete refused to answer questions about who he voted for and was blacklisted just as his band The Weavers’ hit ‘Goodnight Irene’ made the charts. Their contract  to do a national TV series was cancelled and he was not allowed on TV for 17 years. Yet Pete Seeger never grew bitter. ‘In the long run” he said “this country doesn’t go in for things like that.” A man of conscience, he quit the Weavers when the group let one of their songs be used for a cigarette advertisement.

Pete sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the day Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech. And Joan Baez led the million people there in singing “We shall overcome” often attributed to Pete. But with typical humility Pete pointed out:  “I get too much credit for this song.” Pete had changed the words from the early gospel “I will overcome” to “We shall overcome”, added the verse “We’ll walk hand in hand” and taught it at the Highlander Folk School  where Guy Carawan added a verse. Guy Carawan, by the way, lived at Highlander Folk School  in Tennessee where I visited him and sang the song along with nuclear resister Bill Bichsel a few years ago. Pete again faced censorship though only briefly when his powerful anti-war song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” (“The Big Fool said we’ll go on”)  was cut from the Smothers Brothers Show but, aired a few months later. But there was a season for everything and Pete sang again on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, this time with Bruce Springsteen, at the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African-American President of the United States. And true to his principles he got the crowd to sing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”, complete with the anti-capitalist verse “Was a big high wall there tried to stop me/ a sign was painted said Private Property / but on the other side it didn’t say nothin’ / that side was made for you and me.”

In later years Pete thought globally and acted locally building the Sloop Clearwater and campaigning to clean up the Hudson River on the banks of which he lived in a log cabin he had built with his own hands. Or singing “Bring ‘em Home” in protests at the atrocious US war in Iraq But what meant the most to me was his kids music, especially “Stories and  Songs for Little Children, which we listened to hundreds of times in the car on our way to our weekly vigil. My personal favourite was the story of AbiYoYo about a boy and his grandfather who made the terrible giant “disappear” Stop in some time and I’ll be glad to tell you the story.

For a full account of Pete’s life see the PBS video biopic Power of Song

Brian Larkin


Share Button