There are musicians who are activists… who stand up for a cause, or causes, and use their music and media as the message… Who use the stage as a pulpit… and their microphone as a megaphone, to loudly spread the words, the ideas, the message.
There are musicians who are of the people, for the people, and who sing of people’s plights and flights…
Being a celebrity, a public figure, gives you both access and responsibility to the masses, because we tend to listen to those individuals and their perceived powers.
This is both a good and bad thing. And I say that because of the stark differences between the messages we may receive. Just because someone is an “activist” does not mean we agree with their cause or ideas. Just because we are a fan of someone’s music, should not mean that we blindly follow whatever path they want to leads us down. We need to think for ourselves and make up our own minds, but realize that he or she who is the loudest, usually, at the very least, gets the most attention.
The “common person” has more access and more volume than they have ever had before… through Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media a literal revolution can be created and controlled.
To quote The Four Agreements, and more so than ever, given the reach of the World Wide Web, we must be “impeccable with our word,” now that we fully understand this newfound power.
Words, music and songs can, in fact, lead one to action… They can inspire, motivate, and truly start a revolution. I do not say this lightly. Take a look at history and the role music has played. It is powerful and remarkable.
You have heard me discuss the negative propaganda and hate spewed by Roger Waters, a musician who fronts one of my most beloved bands… and who is making it harder and harder to separate the man from the music. I try to think of Pink Floyd now as David Gilmour, Richard Wright, Nick Mason and Syd Barrett… though I should probably investigate where they fall politically, and see how closely aligned they may be to Roger’s misguided ideas.
Like my friend Eric says… sometimes we discover that our heroes are assholes… Roger Waters is an asshole.
But that is another discussion… and not the purpose of this piece… Far from it. Though perhaps it was a necessary jumping off point to better understand the courage, kindness, universal love and activism of Pete Seeger.
This post is to celebrate a man who has had a direct influence on me, but also on the musicians I so love and cherish. It was Bruce who did a magnificent, celebration of life and music, record called We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.
I was lucky enough to see Pete perform live twice… Once at the UCLA Folk Festival years ago… and way before that at an amazing venue, whose name I am blanking on. Damn my memory… All I remember is that it was off a quiet, dark, country road, and appeared to be a stage set up in someone’s back yard… albeit a huge, farm-like backyard, but still. It was intimate and wonderful… an evening with Pete and Arlo Guthrie… and will stay with me for the rest of my life…
American folk singer… American icon… Musical history… American history…
Pete was in a band called the Weavers, which makes sense considering how much he contributed to the cloth and tapestry of our nation… being present for so many historical events, with strings and a voice.
Though he sang many “covers” and re-imagined many traditional songs, they all became his own. Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” is perhaps the best example of this. That and, of course, “We Shall Overcome.”
The following three tunes are probably the ones most associated with Pete… and are so darn iconic… and powerful… and most importantly, human. These are songs we all know… every word. These are all songs we sing or have sung.
“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (with Joe Hickerson),
“If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” (with Lee Hays of the Weavers)
“Turn! Turn! Turn!” (lyrics adapted from Ecclesiastes)
Wikipedia says: “Seeger was one of the folksingers most responsible for popularizing the spiritual “We Shall Overcome” (also recorded by Joan Baez and many other singer-activists) that became the acknowledged anthem of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement, soon after folk singer and activist Guy Carawan introduced it at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. In the PBS American Masters episode “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song”, Seeger stated it was he who changed the lyric from the traditional “We will overcome” to the more singable “We shall overcome.”
Need to track that episode down, as it has been years since I have seen it.
What is most remarkable, and perhaps powerful and personal for me, is how my own synagogue… temple… uses “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” as sing-alongs in our services. Quite a testimony to Pete and the power of his music… how his songs can cut across racial and religious lines, and speak to the oneness of humanity…
We are, after all, the same…
Aside from the Springsteen record, one of my other, all-time favorite Seeger-related albums is Where Have All The Flowers Gone: The Songs Of Pete Seeger, a multi-artist tribute album. I get no credit, but you can find it at your local record store… or here at Amazon… Yes, they owe me something…
As far as Pete’s records go, I also have almost all of the American Favorite Ballads Collection from Smithsonian Folkways. Music and history right there… music and history.
This is campfire music… sit around the house and play guitar music… get up and start a revolution or movement music… THIS is music. What it can be and should be.
I love this quote from Pete… It reminds me of what is important and what to strive for… and ultimately, what to get back to… Nature… beauty… and a love to share it with… That should be the goal of all of us…
“I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. [I used to say] I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.”
Open your heart and your soul… your eyes and your ears… let music overtake you… and we shall overcome… anything… everything… We shall overcome.
94 is a good long, life… but in the end… it is not enough. The world could use the music… and the voice of Pete Seeger. Sing on… Sing on.