Ninety-two years old, Pete Seeger walked nearly forty blocks to join Occupy Wall Street and sing. He needs canes to walk these days, but he played the banjo, sang, and brought along Arlo Guthrie, grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, and other musicians.
For Seeger, this isn’t unusual at all. I can’t think of a progressive movement since the Great Depression that hasn’t benefited from his participation.
Of course, Seeger’s story is much longer, and much more complicated, too much to tell here. He was a banjo player, a leader of sing-a-longs, a Communist, a Billboard hit-maker, and an American hero. Here are some notes:
The son of a musicology professor and a classical violinist, Seeger dropped out of Harvard University to commit to activism and music in the 1930s. He played to promote trade unions and civil rights, and served in the Navy during World War II. Later, he would play for the civil rights movement, the antinuclear movement, and the antiwar movement. In 1955, when called to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, he refused to name names, citing the first amendment to the Constitution, rather than the fifth amendment. Blacklisted for a decade, he made a living playing at schools and summer camps, indirectly sending his take on folk music into the New Left.
All the while, he built institutions to promote folk music and an exceptionally democratic ethos of politics. On the left, see a civil rights snapshot from the Highlander Institute, * where Seeger was a frequent visitor. He was a key player in establishing contemporary folk archives, through the magazines Sing Out! and Broadside, and produced an easy introduction to the five-string banjo.
In 1967, the Smothers Brothers invited him to play an antiwar song on their variety show, adding to CBS’s grievances with them. Network censors cut the song, so the hosts invited Seeger back to sing it again. It’s below:
If there was a large demonstration, Pete Seeger was there; if there was a dramatic civil disobedience effort, not so visible, well Pete Seeger was there too. When I start listing appearances, it’s hard to believe that he was only one person.
In the late 1970s, when I helped organize a benefit concert for an anti-hunger group, popular singer-songwriter Harry Chapin told us to get Pete Seeger to come out for the cause; he won’t be around forever, you know, Chapin said. Chapin was killed in a car accident a few years later.
In 2009, he sang at President Obama’s inaugural.
I can’t guess what percentage of the Occupiers knew about Pete Seeger before his appearance this week. When I ask people about him, I’m generally surprised by what small bits, if any, most people know.
I’m certain, however, that everyone who was there will remember it for a very long time. The visit was a real link between a new movement and a much longer tradition of political activism in America.
* William Roy’s new Reds, Whites, and Blues: Social Movements, Folk Music, and Race in the United States, tells the story of the link between the protest music of the 1930s and the protest music of the 1960s. Pete Seeger is a key figure.