Pete Seeger, folksinger and activist, passed away January 27. Few individuals have participated in so much of America's history. Certainly, there are few who were so influential in the second wave (the thirties and forties) of labor organizing. Pete's "Talking Union Blues" is as powerful and delightful today as it was when he wrote it over 70 years ago. More than that, Pete never turned down an invitation to contribute to a labor action when asked. If he couldn't come himself, he'd send a contribution and words of encouragement.
Contrary to the claims of critics, who persist today, Pete loved America very much. There are some, and always have been, who believe in a very narrow America. They believe you cannot be a communist and an American. They believe you cannot be a Muslim and an American. They believe you cannot be African-American and American. Those poor twisted bigoted souls truly believe that only white conservative heterosexual Christians can be real Americans. Never mind that that kind of narrow view was exactly what the Constitution was seeking to guard against.
Pete Seeger believed in certain aspects of communism, its true. He believed in communism as was practiced by the Native Americans, not as it was practiced in the USSR. As Pete pointed out, the communism of Eastern Europe bore as much resemblance to true communism as the Christianity taught in the churches bears to true Christianity. I consider myself a Christian, but I want nothing to do with The Church which, in my opinion, preaches intolerance and bigotry--exactly the opposite of what I read in my copy of The Bible.
Anyway, point being, Pete was called to testify by the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy era--as dark a stain as any on America's past. The Committee, of course, wanted Pete to "name names"--to "expose" other communists. While others would plead the Fifth Ammendment, Pete plead the First--the rights to free speech and freedom of assembly. It was a very brave thing to do at the time and Pete spent a year in prison for contempt of Congress until that conviction was, ultimately, tossed out. Twenty years from now, we won't be hailing Edward Snowden as a hero, but there will be a quiet acknowledgement that what he did was righteous and brave. Because that's how we do it, here. Quiet acknowledgement.
Pete was generally a pacifist. But that, too, has been painted with too broad a brush. In general, Pete found war to be such a waste of lives and resources, waged for the aggrandizement of those who never fought in them. He recognized, though, that some wars were necessary. He served during World War II, though his communist background kept him picking up cigarette butts rather than fighting. But wars like Viet Nam and Iraq--wars built on lies and profit--those he opposed with his weapon of choice--music.
In more recent decades, Pete had been a crusader for the environment, particularly through his Clearwater Foundation.
And Pete understood that human beings have a tendency to be overwhelmed by the size and number of things requiring change and improvement. There is a tendency to throw up your hands and say, "What can I do in the face of all that?" Pete's answer was to focus on small things that you could do. He spoke of the Teaspoon Brigade and said, "Realize that little things lead to bigger things."
Above all else, Pete brought a lot of great music into the world and spread it far and wide. His songs delivered positive messages, whatever the subject matter. It's impossible to listen to Pete Seeger sing and not picture him smiling with the sun just beyond his shoulder. He was an eternal optimist in song. His spirit will be greatly missed.
And, so, belatedly, we've added some Pete Seeger quotes to our humble repository. You'll find them gathered together on the "S" page, and scattered throughout the topic pages as appropriate. It is one of the "little things" I could do.