January 29, 2014
In my first two entries I’ve been writing about music and community. For me no one united those two concepts better than Pete Seeger, who died Monday at the age of 94. Pete engaged people through music in ways great and small, performing on television for millions or jamming with young musicians he’d just met in a motel hallway. Pete (I don’t think anyone thought of him as Mr. Seeger) helped bring people together through song wherever he was, including traveling to places where he felt folks needed the power of music to uplift them. He didn’t preach or patronize, he just sang and let the music and words work their magic, whether in labor camps out West or with sharecroppers in the South. And he didn’t sing to people, he sang with them.
It was this belief in the power of song that made him so beloved by ordinary folk and feared by those in power. He was blacklisted, cited for contempt of Congress, had his appearances on television censored and yet he never stopped singing nor was he afraid to speak out against injustice through music.
I may have seen Pete once at a rally in Boston, but my most vivid memory dates from 1968. It was an awful year in the United States, filled with turmoil, burning cities and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. In February Pete appeared on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. I watched this program religiously. Not only I get to see many of my favorite bands perform, but I also loved the Smothers Brothers’ wacky humor and political commentary clothed as stand-up musical comedy. And there one night was Pete, singing “Big Muddy”, a song he’d just written that was purportedly about an ill-conceived attempt of an army unit to cross a dangerously swollen river, driven on by their captain, called “the big fool” in the chorus. When he is swept away by the water the second-in-command turns the troop around and leads the men to safety. But then comes the final chorus with a slight change: “And now we’re waist deep in The Big Muddy and the Big Fool says to push on.” Even in those days of political outspokenness I was floored by the power of the song and its unmistakable reference to Vietnam and President Johnson. (You can see the performance still.)
That was Pete Seeger. He could be comforting and gentle, but he also used song to stand up for justice and the right as he saw it. He had a hammer and it rang out. It’s ringing still. Ring on, Pete!