Thank You Pete Seeger

Source: Open Democracy

“We are not afraid…we shall all be free.” Pete Seeger died last night, but the power of his music lives on. One activist pays tribute to another.

My being a radical activist is in no small part due to Pete Seeger who died last night – and my parents.

My mother was a civil rights and anti-war activist and my father was a GI who organized against the Vietnam War from inside the military. They met while organizing an anti-war Coffee House in Washington DC in 1969. I arrived on the scene two years later.

I grew up learning that everyone must seek justice – whatever that means to you – and it became an integral part of who I am. The music of Pete Seeger was central to that journey. My parents would listen to and sing his music all the time. My night time ‘lullabies’ were songs like “We Shall Overcome” (one of my mother’s favorites) and “Kevin Barry” (one of my dad’s).

Listening to these songs as a child I can remember being upset at their lyrics. “I Come and Stand at Every Door”, Pete sang, but was the child in the song really a ghost? Where was Hiroshima, and how could children be allowed to die? Did all miners live in the conditions described in “Mrs. Clara Sullivan’s Letter?” Why would “John Henry” have to die to “beat a machine.” Pete also sang songs especially for children, which really made me think. I learned the meaning of being “ostracized” by listening to “Abiyoyo” before I was even in school, and took the lesson of that song to heart: even if you are counted as excluded, you can still beat giants.

Living in Croton-on-Hudson in upstate New York for much of my childhood, I was lucky enough to see Pete perform at the Clearwater Revival folk music celebrations he organized every year. I can remember his presence, so normal and accessible, and always trying to get everyone to participate. It was not about him, though he was the performer. It was his personality as much as his politics that made him such a transformative figure. My family and I would watch him organizing – doing the politics – from protests against the Indian Point Nuclear Power Station to cleaning up the Hudson River. These campaigns made his music even more powerful. He sang to get people involved in changing the world.

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