Many people have a song in their hearts. Pete Seeger had so many that he shared them with each and every one of us. Now it’s time for him to hear our voices one last time singing his praises.
A conservative saying positive things about super lefty Pete Seeger might well wreck the Internet. Pete, who lived a simple life chopping wood to heat his home almost to the day he died, would be amused by that.
But Pete had influence on both left and right through his music – spending more decades than God grants most of us singing folk songs.
One Washington Post profile of him 20 years ago called him “America's Best-Loved Commie.” But that was from another era when left and right at least admitted they had some things in common.
Pete was born in 1919 and lived his formative years during the Great Depression and formative they were. He never met a left-wing cause he didn’t like from union fights to Occupy Wall Street.
His obit credits him with helping “write, arrange or revive such perennial favorites as ‘If I Had a Hammer,’ ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ and ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’ and popularized the anthem of the civil rights movement, ‘We Shall Overcome.’”
My personal favorite of those was Pete singing the anti-war anthem “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.” Pete was consistently anti-war.
But all that understates his genius and his impact.
Where Pete had the most influence was with 1,000 or more other songs about America – its people, its faith and its history.
Pete understood that folk music meant music of the people. He spent his life singing about the American people, performing everything from Civil War marching tunes to quirky ditties.
As a child of the ’60s, I grew up not just hearing Pete sing of protest, but also “On Top of Old Smokey,” or “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.”
He performed with nearly all the greats of folk – both Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Peter Paul and Mary and many more.
I saw him in concert with Arlo in 1983 when he used his classic banter to get the crowd to join in and sing songs they had known all their lives.
Pete had much he could teach both left and right today.
A lifetime Christian, Pete had no trouble mixing God in with his standards. He recorded Christmas music and never hid from his faith. That’s a far cry from today’s left that seeks freedom from religion, not freedom of it.
For conservatives, the lesson is also clear. There is no bard of the right. No one man who spanned decades with his music like Pete Seeger. Liberals dominate far too much of the entertainment culture and conservative values always suffer for it.
And for both sides, Pete had a lesson that appeared in one of his final profiles and that was we all need to know how to talk to the other side.
Maybe Pete’s politics kept him from saying the right words, but he could always sing them.
One of the billion or so songs that Pete recorded that I love was the Civil War era “John Brown’s Body.” It began:
“John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.”
Somewhere I believe Pete’s soul, too, is still marching on. Much like Tom Joad, Pete will be found “wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat.” One things for certain, wherever he’ll be, he’ll be singing.