Like millions of Americans, I grew up with Pete Seeger . If I Had a Hammer was a singalong standard at school. My father learned to play guitar so he could sing folk songs to me and my sisters, and one of his bedtime staples was Goodnight, Irene, a 1950 hit for Seeger’s folk trio The Weavers. I’ve been singing it to my own daughter since she was a baby, and she can’t go to sleep without it.
That Seeger died last week at 94 should not have been a surprise. But his sudden absence is still, somehow, startling. For 70 years he was part of not just our music, but our cultural and political consciousness. If I Had a Hammer and We Shall Overcome seem like songs that have always existed, though Seeger wrote the first and re-wrote the second in a way that made it the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.
Despite his legendary status, Seeger probably hadn’t been a household name since the peak of leftist activism in the 1960s and ’70s. He had a late-career renaissance, aided by Bruce Springsteen’s 2006 tribute The Seeger Sessions and the pair’s performance at President Obama’s first inauguration, but there are plenty of people under 40 who must have wondered why #PeteSeeger was trending on Twitter Tuesday and why there was such an outpouring of tributes.
Yet there are many ways in which Seeger’s influence continues to be felt and in which his belief in the ability of music to create community and the drip-drip-drip power of individual effort to effect change are as valuable as ever.
Seeger believed everyone could and should sing. "My main purpose as a musician is to get people singing and to get them to make music themselves," he told NPR’s Terry Gross in 1985. "I want to show people what a lot of fun it is to sing together."
He wasn’t talking about the shiny-flimsy dream of American Idol-style pop stardom but of the soul-enriching pleasure of school choirs, community choruses and singing with your kids in the car.
The folk-singing activist for which Seeger (and Woody Guthrie, his early companion and inspiration) was the prototype might seem outdated in an age of laptop-produced party anthems, but Seeger’s inspiration persists.
His fundamental belief that songs should say something more than “I love you/you hurt me” or “Let’s party” had a profound effect not just on the likes of Bob Dylan but on rockers and songwriters like Dave Matthews, Tom Morello, Don McLean, Ani DiFranco, Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Bernice Johnson Reagan — and on artists everywhere who want their music to move people’s minds and hearts.
"There's not dozens of people now doing what I try to do, not hundreds, but literally thousands," he told the Associated Press in 2008. "The idea of using music to try to get the world together is now all over the place."
Music is potent, and the powerful know it. In 1955, Seeger refused to answer the House Un-American Activities Committee’s questions about his Communist Party affiliation. (He had joined but later quit and renounced it.) “I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked," he told the congressmen.
"I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion ... I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody."
He did offer to sing for them, but the HUAC folks weren’t interested. "They questioned me about a song, I said that’s a good song, I’ll sing it to you," he told NPR’s Gross. "No, they wanted to know where I sang it."
Six decades later, the Dixie Chicks and Pussy Riot can testify to the consequences of musicians challenging political power.
Long before the Internet, Seeger understood the value of going viral. Blacklisted from radio, television and commercial concerts after his defiant HUAC testimony, he built a new audience with years of appearances in schools, camps and communities. His countless singalongs, the grassroots plink-plink-plink of his homemade banjo, would make him far more influential than any single folk-pop hit could have.
"Revolutionists as well as religionists forget that heaven doesn’t come in one big bang," he told NPR. "It comes in many steps."
Perhaps his greatest example is of persistence. In 2011, hobbling on two canes, he joined an Occupy Wall Street protest. His grandson reported that he was chopping wood 10 days before he died. Toward the end of his life, his voice deteriorated into something between a growl and a croak; he cheerfully said it made his mission of getting people to sing along even more important.
"Never give up," he said in an interview with Democracy Now last summer, soon after his beloved wife of 70 years, Toshi Aline Seeger, had died. "That is something the human race needs to be reminded of." And then, barely able to whisper, he sang We Shall Overcome.
Pete Seeger never gave up on anything he cared about, and especially not on us. We shouldn’t either.