Here is a story told to me lately by a man named John Cronin, who is the director of the Pace Academy for the Environment, at Pace University. Cronin has known Seeger for thirty years. “About two winters ago, on Route 9 outside Beacon, one winter day, it was freezing–rainy and slushy, a miserable winter day–the war in Iraq is just heating up and the country’s in a poor mood,” Cronin said. “I’m driving north, and on the other side of the road I see from the back a tall, slim figure in a hood and coat. I’m looking, and I can tell it’s Pete. He’s standing there all by himself, and he’s holding up a big piece of cardboard that clearly has something written on it. Cars and trucks are going by him. He’s getting wet. He’s holding the homemade sign above his head–he’s very tall, and his chin is raised the way he does when he sings–and he’s turning the sign in a semicircle, so that drivers can see it as they pass, and some people are honking and waving at him, and some people are giving him the finger. He’s eighty-four years old. I know he’s got some purpose, of course, but I don’t know what it is. What struck me is that, whatever his intentions are, and obviously he wants people to notice what he’s doing, he wants to make an impression–anyway, whatever they are, he doesn’t call the newspapers and say, ‘I’m Pete Seeger, here’s what I’m going to do.’ He doesn’t cultivate publicity. That isn’t what he does. He’s far more modest than that. He would never make a fuss. He’s just standing out there in the cold and the sleet like a scarecrow. I go a little bit down the road, so that I can turn and come back, and when I get him in view again, this solitary and elderly figure, I see that what he’s written on the sign is ‘Peace.'”
—“The Protest Singer,” written by Alec Wilkinson, The New Yorker, 2006
Woody Guthrie’s guitar was famously scrawled with the message “THIS MACHINE DESTROYS FASCISTS.” Pete Seeger countered by adorning his banjo with a less combative take on the same (or at least very similar) sentiment: “THIS MACHINE SURROUNDS HATE AND FORCES IT TO SURRENDER.” If Seeger’s perspective of pushing towards a more benevolent solution wasn’t clear enough, he punctuated the phrase with a peace sign.
That surname practically guaranteed I’d have a certain appreciation for the man who carried the nation’s folk music tradition further and with more care than practically anyone over the course of his nearly century of living. I feel lucky to share a last name with such a sterling individual, a man who picked up his instrument as a humble means to try to right the wrongs he saw in the country and the world. Side-by-side with the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement (he reportedly introduced Martin Luther King, Jr. to the song “We Will Overcome”) and against those who saw making war as the country’s number one industry, Seeger was always on the right side of history. He sang for workers and he sang for the downtrodden. He sang for anyone who was unduly oppressed by the systems ostensibly set up to serve the people but that were too often bent to protect those who coveted wealth and power at the expense of their fellow citizens. And he always seemed to do it with a smile, he chin thrust upward, the banjo spraying out blessed notes to the heaven that existed in the heart of anyone who cared to hear him.
He was committed to his causes and powerful in his beliefs, but he wasn’t a brawler. When Seeger was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the nineteen-fifties, he responded to insinuating queries about his supposedly problematic connections by stating, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.” After that, he met the badgering repetition of the same questions by repeating, “My answer is the same as before.” Perfectly enough, Seeger faced down bullies by developing a chorus of resolutely invoked rights.
Though he was a realist, he met the world without apparent cynicism or irony. Seeger’s belief in the power of music to shift our shared life for the better was unwavering, which led to an inspirational hopefulness and joy. He had cause to feel this way, having seen it proven as he played across the world. As he told Life magazine, “If I’ve got a talent it’s for picking the right song at the right time for the right audience. And I can always seem to get people to sing with me.” This happened to him at the smallest folk clubs and in the largest concert halls, in the streets of New York City and in countries around the world. He sought unity, but he didn’t idly wait around for it to happen. Seeger picked up his banjo and built it one note at a time. As if he had a hammer.