Pete Seeger died today. There’s an excellent article in the New York Times that gives some idea of the scope of his power and influence.
In my branch of children’s music, no one has been more important than Pete Seeger. His legacy defines the essence of what’s important to me in singing with kids. I am filled with sadness at his death today, knowing that without the slightest exaggeration, we will not see his like again. What he has meant for history, politics, the environmental movement, folk music, and children’s music in particular can’t be measured.
There are ways in which now might be considered a golden age of kids’ music. At the Grammys this week, some excellent recordings were nominated, many with well-produced and well-written songs that speak directly to the experiences of growing up. Funny, thoughtful, and catchy, there is a wealth of rich material to choose from.
Pete wasn’t about that, though. He was about singing together. Better than anyone I can think of he promoted the power and pleasure that comes from being in a room with a bunch of other people making a coordinated sound, filling the air and heart with ancient, mysterious, and yet direct and tangible energies of connection and joy. This is what is most important to me when I perform. I want us all to have an experience of singing.
Quotes and conversations reflect the importance of this experience. Pete said something to the effect of “when we hear a virtuoso, we think ‘look what he can do.’ When we sing together,we think ‘look what we can do.'” Peter Yarrow told me that when people sing together, about 20 percent of what’s important is the words, and 80 percent is the experience itself. And John McCutcheon talked about first seeing Pete Seeger and realizing that his primary instrument was the audience.
I love virtuosos, and I have deep respect for the amazing talent of so many musicians. Pete had talent; he was a great banjo player, an amazing songwriter deeply versed in American traditional music, and a singer of passion and skill. But he offered those gifts in the service of group singing, because I think he believed that the real power for individuals and groups lay in, in his words, “breathing in unison.”
There are times I feel despair about the future and relevance of this kind of group singing. Children are listening to pop music at earlier and earlier ages. We used to say that the market for children’s music went up to about 8, when kids would inevitably discover the radio and the latest teen sensation. Now kids who are three or four are already hooked on listening to ipads and watching YouTube videos of pop singers. Folk-based music can’t easily compete at that level, because it lacks the heavy rhythms, soaring hooks, and glossy sound. Folk music is grounded in an experience in a room together, an experience that most people rarely or never have. Karaoke is a poor substitute. American Idol and its imitators promote humiliation and competition as the foundations of singing. Many folk and acoustic performers include a sing-along, but it often feels obligatory or like another tool in a performance bag, rather than a fundamental value in music. Where do children, and adults, get the chance to feel this power that depends on connection, physical presence, and songs?
Pete was a strange character in person. Once he suddenly appeared beside me at a Children’s Music round robin and told me that the song I had just performed, “Everybody Started Out Small” was a great song that “people need to be singing.” He then told me that the last line was too difficult and should be simplified to facilitate people learning it. Later he sent me a postcard with several melodic ideas sketched out for how I could change it. He avoided hero worship like botulism, quickly disappearing whenever he sensed someone was about to give him the old, “Mr Seeger, you’ve meant so much to…” And yet he also focused on the positive and the importance of sharing stories about the good things people were doing around the planet.
Pete wrote the foreword to my We Shall Overcome book and I was fortunate to have several lengthy conversations with him, some of which I recorded. He talked about the song and his experience singing, but our conversations, or, more accurately, his ruminations, led to the environment, urban planning, history, multi-cultural life, food and beyond.
Pete was a brilliant man, a complicated man, and a passionate man, a learner to the end, and he always had ideas about how we could all work toward community, justice, and a better world. His accomplishments are varied and influential, but at this moment I remember him as a man who loved to laugh, to play the banjo, and to throw his head back and get us all singing, with as much gusto as we could muster, until we blended into something way beyond what any one of us could become or even imagine individually. The legacy is clear, and the memorial gift is without argument.
Kim Carlson, a music teacher at Cormier School, died unexpectedly last spring. She was a wonderful teacher, and a good friend to Tom Pease and me. She loved singing with kids. I wrote a song for her, the chorus of which seems to fit Pete’s passing and legacy as well. Tom and I will record it at some point, but for now, the lyrics to the chorus will have to suffice.
Keep singing, proud and strong
Keep Singing, loud and long
Keep Singing, for all we’re dreaming of.
Keep Singing, Singing out for love.
So long Pete. I’ll grieve for you, miss your presence on this planet, draw inspiration from your life and achievements, and hopefully, we’ll all keep singing. Together.
My friend Brigid Finucane has a lesson plan for kids on Pete’s work and life. You can find it here.