For almost a century, Pete Seeger walked the walk and embraced the possible. He was a man who understood the power of art and the dignity and worth of each human being; who risked imprisonment and endured the blacklist for refusing to compromise either his principles or the Bill of Rights; and who worked locally to change the world globally and globally to change the world locally. But mostly, he was a man who never forgot that singing is joy and all of us are singers.
He sang with Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Cisco Houston. He saved old American songs from obscurity and gave them new life in a contemporary context ("We Shall Overcome"). He collected folk music from all over the world and brought it to a new audience in America ("Wimoweh," "Guantanamera"). His "Rainbow Quest" television show of the early 1960s was a barebones production that featured as guests some of the most important folk, country, and blues musicians of the 20th century: Mississippi John Hurt, Richard and Mimi Farina, the Clancey Brothers and Tommy Makem, Johnny Cash, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Hedy West, Judy Collins, Malvina Reynolds, Jean Redpath, Bessie Jones, and more. His 1967 anti-war song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" was censored out of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" as too critical of the President (it was later reinstated after fans of the show objected vociferously). In his later years, he devoted himself to saving and restoring his beloved Hudson River through the Hudson River Clearwater Foundation. He toured with Arlo Guthrie, his good friend Woody's son, to whom he acted as a surrogate father, for many years. In January 2009, he sang "This Land is Your Land" (all the verses!) at President Obama's bitterly cold Inaugural Concert (what a vindication that must have felt like!). Into very old age, he was still fighting for the rights and diginity of all people, once showing up unexpectedly to give encouragement to and sing some songs with the Occupy Wall Street protestors.
The song we all sang at camp, "If I Had a Hammer," was written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949 in response to the government's charging the Communist Party of America with attempting to overthrow the government. In 1955, Pete himself was called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. In his testimony, Pete refused to answer the committee's questions, condemning their unconstitutional disregard for the First Amendment. He was found in contempt of Congress and sentenced to one year in jail (the conviction was finally overturned in 1962). Later, "If I Had a Hammer" became one of the great anthems of the Civil Rights Movement. The last time Pete sang it in public was at this past year's Farm Aid concert.
Rest in peace, Pete. We sure are gonna miss you.