Seeger’s companion for over seven decades, his banjo, read ‘this machine
surrounds hate, and forces it to surrender’. Today’s world has a handful of
living legends. This morning, it became one less; we lost Seeger, at an age of
sing along tunes, revived and scraped from folk tunes, strung with simple words
were a tradition in itself. Born in 1919, Pete Seeger has had a musical journey
spanning across a century. He saw wars, workers’ movements, fight for civil liberties.
But he was not a mere spectator. He wrote songs, sang tunes and documented the
history of struggles. His songs are a companion to anyone who wants to revisit
the history of the struggles waged for peace, freedom and justice in the twenty
was not only a song writer, or a folk musician, he was an activist; a political
activist. His music was his politics. Beginning from his student days, when he
became a member of the Young Communist League and started singing in favour of
the worker’s unions, he has always been a man of the ‘collective’. As he added
to one of his most famous renditions, ‘We shall overcome’, the lines, ‘We will
walk hand in hand’. The song has now almost become an anthem for all struggling
people, which has been translated in innumerable languages worldwide. He
believed in simplicity and that which made a song a people’s song. Describing
the song, he said, “It’s the genius of simplicity. Any damn fool can get
was a member of the Communist Party, which he left in 1950, but called himself
a communist till the end. He took up the cause of peace. During the Cold War
years, he was an ardent advocator of building peace. He campaigned for Progressive
Party candidate, Henry Wallace, who stood for peaceful US-Soviet negotiations.
In the McCarthy era, he had to bear the brunt of his slogans for peace. He was
even sent to prison for a year in 1961 and was ostracized, on grounds of
contempt of Congress. However, all this never failed him to stand up for the
ideals that he lived up to till the end.
believed in a peaceful world, free from wars. During the Vietnam War, when
peace activists were rallying on the streets, Seeger wrote, ‘Where have all the
flowers gone?’, depicting the tragedy of wars. His greatest dream was perhaps, the
words he adapted from Ed Mc Curdy, ‘I dreamed the world had all agreed to put
an end to war’. He was highly critical of the US war on Iraq and protested with
his songs demanding a pull out of American forces.
has been called the ‘conscience’ of the American people. He was a conscience of
all people of the world. He was a nationalist in the sense that he imagined his
homeland to be a land for all free and equal, as he wrote and sang, ‘Woodland and
grassland and river shoreline, To everything living, even little microbes, Fin,
fur, and feather, we’re all here together, This land was made for you and me’.
establishment. He had a youthful charm, which made him a ‘universal singer’.
Who would have expected the ninety year old singer to be part of a protest? But
Seeger was no other, cheering and encapturing the imagination of the protesters
thronged at the heart of New York, in the Occupy Wall Street protests. Pete
Seeger once said that protest songs and songs of freedom, will ‘reaffirm your
faith in the future of mankind’.
Seeger will remain an inspiration for generations to come. He will always be,
as someone said, the ‘voice of our protests’. As Seeger himself wrote that
there is a ‘A time to build up, a time to break down, A time to dance, A time
to mourn, A time to cast away stones, A time to gather stones’, we shed a tear
at the passing of a legendary voice and man, and also gather inspiration from
the work and times of Pete Seeger.
Ranjini Basu is a research scholar at TISS, Mumbai.