If I had a dollar for every time I heard Pete Seeger sing “If I Had a Hammer” when I was growing up, I could own a penthouse apartment at Trump Tower in Manhattan.
Of course, having grown up listening to the legendary folk singer, who died at age 94 on Monday (Jan. 27) in a New York City hospital, I would feel obligated to give a goodly portion of those greenbacks to progressive social causes and charity.
Pete Seeger, along with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, made up the soundtrack of my childhood, thanks to folkie parents. That holy trinity continues to reign on my iPod even today.
With his genial tenor voice, ever-present 12-string banjo and obvious joie de vivre, it just seemed as if Seeger was always there and always would be.
One of my favorite memories of Seeger came one night just a few years back, in October 2011, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Seeger, then 92 and walking with the aid of two canes, led some 600 marchers for more than 30 blocks down Broadway in New York, with followers singing such long-familiar songs of his as “Down By the Riverside” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” as they marched. When the crowd reached Columbus Circle, Seeger, joined by fellow folkies Arlo Guthrie, Tom Chapin and others, presided over a group singalong of “We Shall Overcome,” which he helped popularize as the anthem of the civil rights movement a half century earlier. (To see him marching, click here. )
Seeger inspired generations of artists who have followed him, most notably Bruce Springsteen. What made him so enduring, besides his talent and amiable stage presence, was that he was always about the cause, never about himself. He was about taking a stand rather than making a buck.
Seeger didn’t just talk the talk. In the 1950s, he was blacklisted for refusing to testify or name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which kept him off network television for years. (He did, however, politely offer to sing the songs named by the Congressmen during his questioning, to which the Committee said no.)
Unlike many of today’s self-promoting singers who are infatuated with their own celebrity, Seeger wasn’t big on self-promotion. He was what they can only talk about trying to be: authentic. He focused his prodigious energy and attention on tirelessly advocating on behalf of unions, civil rights, migrant workers, cleaning up the environment and plenty of other worthy issues. And in between, or by singing about those causes, he managed to record more than 100 albums over the course of his 70-plus year career.
If there’s a heaven, you know that Seeger is up there now. He’s pulling out his banjo and joining in on that big jamboree in the sky alongside Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Johnny Cash and all the other stalwarts of American music who believed in singing and playing music that speaks directly to the listener.
Let’s just hope the rest of us can get in there eventually and grab a spot on a cloud up near the front.
Here, appropriately enough, is Seeger late in life singing “Forever Young.”