In the not so long-ago days when a family listened to music together or not at all; when children’s music consisted of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals and, if you were really lucky, Danny Kaye Sings Hans Christian Andersen; when our depression-raised parents thought FM radio in the car was an unspeakable luxury; Pete Seeger’s uniquely American voice challenged our values and raised our spirits.
Before Leonard Cohen re-imagined the Yom Kippur liturgy in the haunting “Who by Fire”, Pete had reminded us that there was a time to every purpose under heaven.
Before Raffi or Sharon, Lois, and Bram strummed about Baby Belugas and The Wheels on the Bus, Pete had given us “The Big Rock Candy Mountain”.
Before Bruce thundered out the disillusionment of working-class America in Jungleland, Pete had challenged us to stand up and tell him – tell everyone – which side we were on.
If we had listened to Pete, we didn’t need Macklemore to remind us this year that “the same fight that led people to walk-outs and sit-ins, it’s human rights for everybody, there is no difference”. We already knew that, in Pete’s father’s mansion, “dwellers in each room should have the right to choose their own design”. In fact, if we had listened to Pete’s 1941 (1941!!!) Talking Union, we didn’t have to wait for the hip-hop revolution to teach us that the spoken word could make for some powerful music, not to mention providing a pretty fair lesson in how to organize people.
Pete’s songs were aspirational and motivational. They challenged and they condemned; they mocked and they accused, and they shone a light on the things that we didn’t – and still don’t –want to see. Because of Pete, we remembered that if our parents had gone to college it was because our grandparents worked in sweatshops. Because of Pete we knew that the banks could only really be trusted to place their own interests before ours. Because of Pete, we knew that the march of technology came with a cost to the steel-driving man. Because of Pete we knew that we were stronger in solidarity than alone.
And of course, long before Naomi Shemer and Arik Einstein gave us access to modern Hebrew music, Pete sang Tzena, Dona Dona, and Tumbelalaika. In his article marking Pete Seeger’s death, JJ Goldberg recalled just how stunned he had been to learn that Pete wasn’t Jewish. It wasn’t simply the fact that Jewish music was part of the Seeger repertoire: the values and vision that he sang about spoke to how we, as self-described secular Jews, defined ourselves. Pete’s music was our liturgy as well as our diversion. And, if we didn’t always agree with him, we at least knew that he spoke from convictions that went beyond self-interest. We at least knew that he had his eye on the horizon.
Pete, and his banjo, came first. And now, having lived as long and, I think as meaningfully, as any person could wish for; having sung the great anthems of the civil rights movement and seen an African American elected president; having called society out on everything that he thought mattered, every time; now, Pete Seeger is gone. “All things shall perish from under the sky,” the song goes. “Music alone shall live, all else shall die”.