Pete Seeger, who died last month, was more than a musician, more than an activist, more then a folklorist. He was a purveyor of hope in the darkest of times. In the McCarthy era, when he was blacklisted, he sang, defiantly, "Wasn't that a time?" and taught music to children. In the 1970s when the Left was imploding, he founded a new cause that transcended the left/right division: cleaning up his own backyard, the Hudson River. He was a fierce believer in political freedom and economic justice. But, while Woody Guthrie's guitar said "This machine kills fascists," the words Seeger wrote on his banjo head read "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." He was a shy man who could command the stage and perform as no one before or since. While others, like Bob Dylan, sang protest songs as long as it was in fashion, or, like Phil Ochs, struggled internally with a desire to be famous, for Pete, the decision was always clear: do the right thing. When he was finally permitted back on television in the 1960s, he immediately threw caution to the wind and sang "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," a protest song against the war in Viet Nam.
I grew up with Pete Seeger as a beacon of light. One of the first records I ever heard as a toddler was "Birds, Beasts and Bigger Fishes," with songs like "Leatherwing Bat" and story-songs like "Cumberland Mountain Bear Chase." Our family went everywhere that he performed. Many of these were not "concerts" at all, but political rallies of one form or another. I remember clearly a rally for Mikis Theodorakis, the greek song-writer and activist who was jailed by the military junta in the 1960s. The rally was entirely in Greek, with a translator. Eventually, the translator became so caught up in the emotions of the crowd that he stopped translating and just cheered.