We live in an era where most politicians and public figures – exceptions noted – flip flop so much, you never know where they stand. Expediency and convenience are, typically, the determining factors that dictate the outcome.
Pete Seeger, the folk singer, environmentalist and human rights advocate who died Jan. 27 at age 94, was always consistent.
Just when he was breaking into the big time music scene as a member of the Weavers, Seeger wouldn’t sell out his political beliefs and, after refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, ended up unofficially banned from network TV until the Smothers Brothers welcomed him back in 1967.
Even so, the network censored his singing of the anti- Vietnam War song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” although, after pressure by the show’s creators, Seeger returned to the show the following year to sing the song for broadcast.
Seeger’s purity of vision was all-embracing: It extended from the simplicity and grace with which he treated family, friends and strangers, to his respect for international musical culture, to his defense of the environment culminating in the creation of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.
Seeger’s affinity for nature drew him to the upstate New York riverfront community of Beacon where, in the 1940s, he built a log cabin and continued to make that his home. It was in that setting that Seeger drew inspiration for his campaign to begin cleaning up a polluted Hudson River, using the Clearwater as a focal point for that goal.
The ship first sailed in summer 1969 and Seeger and other musicians sang at benefits to heighten awareness of the fouled waterway and to push for action to do something about it. Four decades later, his unflagging efforts – coupled with federal legislation – resulted in General Electric dredging PCBs from the river.
An annual two-day Clearwater Great Hudson River Revival music and environmental festival, founded by Seeger and his wife Toshi (who died in July 2013), continues as part of the couple’s legacy. This year, it will be held June 21-22 at Croton Park in Croton-on- Hudson, N.Y.
I never had the good fortune to hear Seeger perform but I was lucky enough to catch Peter, Paul & Mary’s version of Seeger’s anti-war classic “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “If I Had a Hammer” (co-written with Lee Hays) at a Central Park concert.
It is said that Seeger was the bridge from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan in folk song tradition, even if Dylan did stray from the fold by playing electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
Even into his 90s, Seeger continued to sing at benefits for the causes he championed. And while he performed for the high and mighty, such as President Obama’s inaugural, Seeger preferred playing for kids. At a Beacon, N.Y. concert in October 2009, he said: “Singing with children in the schools has been the most rewarding experience of my life.”
Perhaps he identified with the youngsters’ innocence and saw them as symbols of hope for the future.
Indeed, the perennial optimist always felt that, no matter how desperate the struggle, “We Shall Overcome.”
– Ron Leir