Why Pete Seeger’s Death Matters More Than Most

01/28/2014 12:35 PM |

My favorite Pete Seeger anecdote comes at the end of a 2006 New Yorker profile, related by a friend of the folk singer-activist:

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… I’m driving north, and 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 the 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 84 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, and 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 sleet like a scarecrow. I got 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 what he’s written on the sign is, ‘Peace.’

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Pete Seeger died yesterday of natural causes in New York, the Times reported, after more than a weeklong hospitalization. “He was chopping wood 10 days ago,” his grandson told the Associated Press. Seeger was 94-years-old, which means he was born in 1919, just seven years after Woody Guthrie; the latter died almost 50 years ago, which means he’s had a half a century to become a dead-and-buried legend, to have his legacy conceived and reconceived—enough time to be forgotten and revived and to have interest start to slip again. Seeger, in contrast—well, we’ve always had Pete Seeger, which means we’ve sorta taken him for granted, too. In 2011, he marched down Broadway to Columbus Circle, where he led a contingent of famous folkies and Occupy protesters in a round of “This Little Light of Mine.”

It was just one of the many old songs he had helped popularize and/or written in his career; others include “Goodnight Irene,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” He sang for labor, for civil rights, and the environment; he “lent his voice against Hitler and nuclear power,” the AP reports. He helped lead the folk revival of the 50s, popularized the banjo, and inspired generations from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen; he was blacklisted by Joe McCarthy and sang at Obama’s inauguration. He lived in Beacon with his wife in a cabin he built himself.

Which is all to say that Seeger leaves behind an important musical legacy but also a rich political one, one so intertwined with his music that they become inseparable. Seeger was one of the rare people who truly try to live in accordance with their core principles—the sort of person who doesn’t just lead an Occupy march, but who also stands out in the snow, protesting in cardboard. Thus he’s not only influential as an activist and folksinger but as a person. It’s almost always sad when someone dies, whether famous or anonymous, for the loved ones they left behind and the silencing of another consciousness. But most public figures who die don’t demand us to mourn as a culture; they made their contributions, which we can recognize, celebrate, and then quickly move on from. Pete Seeger is different. Here was someone who made new contributions, large and small, every day—which is why he’ll be sorely missed, more than most.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

3 Comment

  • I am one of the many that Pete & Toshi have
    Shared with me their food, music, and stories. We all carry a little of Pete around with us. Hoping we can leave this world a better place. He use to ask me if I could drive him to a gig. No matter how many miles I put on that day I would drive Pete to his gig. It would put the hair on the back on your neck to hear how he got folks to sing. We all should keep our hands on the tiller and keep making this world a better place.

  • It kind of sounds like you’d never heard of Pete Seeger before he died yesterday. In fact, the disconnect is so strong that you even mock the Occupy protesters he supported. How’s that for respect?

    “Seeger was one of the rare people who truly try to live in accordance with their core principles—the sort of person who doesn’t just lead an Occupy march, but who also stands out in the snow, protesting in cardboard.”

    I mean, a whole lot of Occupy protesters did indeed stand in the snow in 2011, still in Zuccotti Park. Maybe you think they are just a bunch of dirty hippies, worthless and ignorant or something like that? News flash – that’s exactly what a lot of people thought about Pete Seeger in the 1960’s.

    This piece is a mess. You just put together a mish-mash of already-reported news from the New Yorker, the Times and the AP. This is not journalism, nor is it an obituary, nor is it respectful to him or his memory. So why was this written exactly? To prove the LMagazine is relevant?

  • End of an era, loss of a legend. Clichés, yes, and in Pete’s case they apply. He served as the conscience for a nation that’s lost its way—and as such, was slighted and ignored much the way we humans often treat that unprepossessing inner voice.