Tuesday, January 28, 2014

So Long, Pete Seeger, It's Been Good to Know Ya

If I was the one in charge of canonization, Pete Seeger would be on my short list.  Perhaps he's not who you think of when you think of modern saints.  My list would also include those people, people like Archbishops Tutu and Romero.

Pete Seeger wrote and/or arranged and made popular many of the songs that are important to so many of us today, songs like "If I Had a Hammer" and "We Shall Overcome."  I'd canonize him just for that, even if he'd done nothing else.

He also helped preserve the legacy of artists like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.  He worked with both of those important figures, and long after their deaths, he told their stories.  I loved this quote in a story about him in The Washington Post:  "Years later, he said that one of his primary career achievements had been 'to let a future generation know that such people as Woody and Lead Belly once lived.'”

But more important, he taught so many of us that we, too, can sing.  We may not have what it takes to make a living singing, but we can sing.  And often, his concerts turned into giant sing-alongs, especially as he got older and his voice lost range.  Far from being a detriment, he reminded us of the joy of singing in groups.

His social justice work is also important to me.  This NPR story, a great retrospective, reminds us that he was a disillusioned sociology major as he left college with his degree unfinished: "The sociology professor said, 'Don't think that you can change the world. The only thing you can do is study it,' Seeger said in October 2011."  Seeger proved that statement false.  He did study the world, and along the way, he changed the world in profound ways.

He lent his voice to so many causes, so many outcast and oppressed groups, in addition to various environmental causes.  But more than that, he reminded us of our common humanity as he sang those songs.  Even as he was protesting, his activist work pulled us together, rather than ripping us apart.

Think about it:  how often can you say that about activists and social justice folks?  Not often.  The older I get, the more valuable that quality is to me.  If I wanted to put it in Biblical terms, I'd say that Pete Seeger was an expert at the ministry of reconciliation.  So few people are.

Here are some great Seeger quotes.  How grateful I am that we had him with us for so long!

"'Be wary of great leaders,' he told The Associated Press two days after a 2011 Manhattan Occupy march. 'Hope that there are many, many small leaders.'"

“'I call them all love songs,' Mr. Seeger once said of his music. 'They tell of love of man and woman, and parents and children, love of country, freedom, beauty, mankind, the world, love of searching for truth and other unknowns. But, of course, love alone is not enough.'”

"'Can't prove a damn thing, but I look upon myself as old grandpa,' Seeger told the AP in 2008 when asked to reflect on his legacy. 'There's not dozens of people now doing what I try to do, not hundreds, but literally thousands. ... The idea of using music to try to get the world together is now all over the place.'"

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