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Keep On
Pete Seeger
Jennifer Forness

Kim Alexander is a self-described “jamvengelist” who has a passion for jamming with friends and encouraging others to make music together. She wrote a letter to Pete Seeger last August, describing the impact his life and music has had on her own. She was disappointed, although not surprised, when she did not receive an immediate response from the ailing ninety-four-year-old. Instead, she continued to organize monthly music jams in her community, an activity inspired by Seeger. Alexander did not hear from Seeger before he died on January 27 of this year.

Among all the hats Seeger wore during his long life—singer, songwriter and collector, banjo player, social activist—it may well be for his role as community music organizer that we will best remember him. No matter what Seeger was doing, whether protesting during the Labor movement or standing with the 99 percent during the Occupy protests, he encouraged everyone to sing with him, with their neighbors, together. He believed that singing together could change the world, and he worked tirelessly to fight injustices through song.

Seeger learned to sing and play from his musicologist father and concert violinist mother. With his father and stepmother, he collected rural folk music and discovered the humor, passion, and tragedy in that music. His early music influences included the great blues singer Lead Belly and his soon-to-be close friend Woody Guthrie. He moved to New York City in 1938 and soon was organizing musicians to sing benefits for union groups during the 1940s.

seeger Seeger’s passion for organizing people to sing together is demonstrated in one of his greatest accomplishments, the use of “We Shall Overcome” during the Civil Rights Movement. The song itself was published by Charles Albert Tindley in 1901 as “I’ll Overcome Someday.” During the Labor movement and early in the Civil Rights Movement, Seeger and other musicians began to use the song during protests. Seeger is credited with changing the lyrics to “We Shall Overcome Someday.” “I will overcome” focuses on the individual, but Seeger changed the song to acknowledge the power that comes from the people and for the people.

Many of Seeger’s songs are meant to be sung by large groups. “If I Had a Hammer,” written with Lee Hayes, changes one word per verse, which makes it easy to lead in a rally or concert. Its lilting rhythm and narrow vocal range are ideal for the amateur singer. Most important, however, are the lyrics. The first three verses explain what can be done with a hammer, a bell, and a song. The fourth verse pulls everything together when the singer realizes that the hammer of justice, the bell of freedom, and the song of love are always available. By singing the song, especially in a group, one engages these tools to work for change alongside the brothers and sisters all over this land.

Some of Seeger’s songs became big hits for other performers. “If I Had a Hammer” made the Top Ten for Peter, Paul, and Mary, and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” topped the charts for The Byrds. Adapted from Ecclesiastes, the song affirms that “To everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season.” Seeger’s contribution to the lyrics consists of the title and the last line, which call us to action. The song declares that love, hate, war, and peace all have their own season, but it is never too late for the season of peace. The melody is easy to sing along to, the refrain rising up on the text and stepping back down on the “turn, turn, turn” phrase. The verses do a simple turn around the same three notes. The song’s simple melody invites everyone to sing along, whether with The Byrds’ recording or at a concert.

While many of his songs have religious overtones, Seeger himself was not a “religious” person. He technically belonged to a Unitarian Universalist church, but admitted in an interview with beliefnet that it was a rouse to use their rehearsal space. He did, however, describe himself as a spiritual person. He saw in every person the gift of love and the ability to be a good neighbor. In the same 2006 interview with beliefnet he said, “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.”

Seeger may not have been interested in organized religion, but he was interested in organizing people. He was involved with almost every social movement of the last hundred years. His work began with the Labor movement and took on a national presence during the Civil Rights movement. He tirelessly campaigned against the Vietnam War and both Iraq Wars, has championed environmental rights and international disarmament, and, at the age of ninety-two, stood in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Whether it was a stadium event or a small concert in an elementary school auditorium, Seeger was there to lend his support through song.

Seeger was often criticized for his firm beliefs and was even jailed for them, albeit briefly. In 1955, he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and refused to plead the Fifth Amendment (as many others had done before him), explaining, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” Seeger was unwilling to sacrifice his fellow neighbors for his own reputation, and there were periods in his life when it was difficult to find work performing. But even when he was shunned for his beliefs, he performed wherever he could, making music with others.

Seeger was often recognized for his music and his influence on other musicians. He received three Grammy awards, along with a Lifetime Achievement award and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He also received the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Award for his service. Seeger is often seen as the father of the folk music revival and strongly influenced singers such as Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Joan Boaz; and Bruce Springsteen. But this kind of recognition was not the most important thing to Seeger himself. In a speech during Seeger’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Arlo Guthrie said, “I can’t think of a single event in Pete’s life that is probably less important to him” than the Weavers’ #1 hit “Goodnight, Irene.” Seeger was more interested in making music than fame.

Seeger will be best remembered for his desire to make music with whatever community of which he found himself a part. Seeger recognized the power of music to change lives. He saw firsthand the change that took place when thousands of people joined together in song during the Civil Rights Movement. He could take a room of nervous strangers and, through leading them to sing together, make them into a community. His clear and gentle voice, along with his old-timey banjo playing, led people away from their individual troubles to a place where peace is possible. Seeger never performed a concert; instead, he jammed with others, always encouraging them to sing.

Kim Alexander was sad when she learned that Pete Seeger had died. The next day she received a huge surprise, a letter from Pete Seeger. Just days before he died, he had finally written a response to her letter. In it, he congratulated her on her work and encouraged her to keep jamming with others. He acknowledged that he was getting old and that his health was failing. “You stay well” he told her, “keep on.” Keep on singing, keep on playing, keep on working for justice. Thank you for your music Pete. We’ll keep on too.

 

Jennifer Forness is choir director at Fisher Middle School and Ewing High School in Ewing, New Jersey. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey with her husband and daughter.

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