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.
Written eloquently, Stuart. My eyes watered as I read the section of you blog about “dispair”, as it is also my frustration with the world in which I move. The power of people singing together cannot be denied. One of the highlights of my life thus far was attending Paul McCartney’s concert in Wrigley Field several summers ago. Though Sir Paul was top notch, it was the power of 60,000 people of all ages and experiences singing along that touched my soul. Everyone sang along on almost every song (ok, when he did some of the Wings stuff the crowd wasn’t singing) – regardless of age.
Those of us who have to opportunity to encourage parents to sing with their children and teachers to sing with their students must keep at it. Pete did it all around the world. We can keep his legacy going, enriching the lives of those we touch.
Stuart thank you so much for writing this. I, like you and many of our folk singing friends, have emulated Pete’s emphasis on group singing. I also waver between despair and hope about the state of children’s singing in community, of people’s singing in community, but most days I come down on the side of hope. I think that the pendulum will swing, and as children’s music becomes more commercial and slick and produced, there will be more people longing for something simpler and community oriented.
While I was songs editor for the Children’s Music Network’s publication “Pass It On”, I worked with Pete on a couple of songs. The last one that he submitted was called “God’s Counting On Me, God’s Counting On You” which he co-wrote with Lorre Wyatt. Great song, inspired by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that was decimating Louisiana at the time, but though it had been inspired by a particular event, the lyrics transcended that event. But, the lyrics caused a small uproar amongst many liberal CMNers who would never sing a song about God and were surprised that Pete had written in that way…..I mentioned that to Pete, and he just chuckled and answered kind of wryly, “Oh well…..at my age….”
So here’s to Pete….here’s to singing…..here’s to community…..here’s to encouraging simplicity and honesty in our musical sharings. Here’s to Pete’s unwavering focus on community rather than stardom. I am very grateful for the example that he provided me of something different in a world of fame and commercialism. That world doesn’t interest me and his choices reassured me that there are other ways of being a musician and a community song-leader.
And thank you for your well put thoughts!
Thank you for this post Stuart, My heart is heavy with grief, as I’m sure other hearts are too. Pete was a huge role model and inspiration to me and my own work in folk and children’s music, and his worldwide influence cannot be measured. Rest in peace, Pete. You and your songs will never be forgotten because they will be sung around the world forever.
Stuart, I commend and thank you for your excellent, sensitive and emotional post. I saw Pete Seeger in concert on two ocassions and can still hear the echoes of the audience’s energy and participation. The experience was so moving and insprirational that I still hold the memory as an unforgettable life experience. Thanks for you tribute!
Wonderful to read your post, Stuart. This morning when I heard of Pete’s passing, then read the NYTimes article on him, and then listened to the OnPoint interview that ran……..I just kept thinking of you. Times that we’ve sung together with a small group of friends. And times that I’ve seen you lead groups of kids in singing. And how precious those times have been, and how way too rarely I sing with friends these days.
May we all be inspired to continue to sing, and to bring song back into our actions for social justice in this world. May Pete’s spirit continue to inspire us, in all the ways that you’ve so eloquently reminded us of with your words and your life.
I didn’t know Pete, but I sure am honored to know you.
Stuart, what a beautifuland fitting tribute to this American hero! His influence is profound and I hope we will all honor his memory by “singing out for love” for the rest of our days so the next generations will experience the joy and importance of what we’ve all learned form Pete and one another.
Truly sad news about Pete Seeger, one of the true greats. Given that he was 94, it’s not unexpected, but I’d still rather hoped he was secretly immortal. R.I.P. Pete Seeger.