Pete Seeger was a giant of a man who walked humbly on this Earth. He changed the course of history by changing the lives of everyone he met. He inspired us all to be a little less selfish and more courageous in our giving. He carried the memories of the people in the songs he wrote, the songs he sang, the stories he told and the decisions he made daily to stand for justice from wherever he stood.
Pete cowrote “We Shall Overcome” during the Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign in 1964. He was a World War II veteran who was a champion of the labor and anti-Vietnam War movements, as well.
He cared deeply for his neighbors, and we cared for him, because the entire world was his neighborhood. His kitchen table was filled with letters that arrived daily from those who loved him. He would separate those letters in piles and meticulously go through each one with handwritten responses in the margins or on postcards with a sketch of a banjo next to his name.
I met Pete through the former Farmer-Labor governor of Minnesota, Elmer Benson. After I sang in support of family farmers, in the American Agriculture Movement’s strike office in Appleton, Minn., Gov. Benson said: “You remind me of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Pete and Woody used to travel through Minnesota and sing for the lumberjacks and miners who were on strike.”
One month later, after arriving in Washington, D.C., with the tractorcade for parity, I got a call from Pete in response to Benson’s prompting. Pete shared stories with me about singing for striking dairy farmers at our nation’s Capitol and gave me encouragement to keep singing for the people.
When Benson was honored at the Prom Center in St. Paul in the late 1970s, Pete brought me up on stage to sing with him.
I loved him as a father. I loved him as a friend. I would call him on the phone at odd hours from the road. Sometimes we would talk for hours, other times for only a few minutes. But no matter how long we talked, I always felt a whole lot better. Conversations with Pete just kept flowing into laughter and inspiration to keep on trying to make this world a little better than it was when it was handed down to us.
I was asked to perform at New York’s Madison Square Garden with Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Kris Kristofferson, Richie Havens and others for Pete’s 90th birthday celebration, which raised funds for the Clearwater project that Pete had founded to help save the Hudson River. The moment most remembered was when Pete sang “Amazing Grace” and all 20,000 people stood up singing.
Pete Seeger gave us all a voice.
As Pete told me years ago: “Try and do a good job with the people you know near you. It’s nice to travel — and I suppose while you’re young it’s the best time to travel. You can learn by traveling. The world can be your university, as Maxim Gorky once said. But in the long run, find this part of the world that you really like that you can stick to. It might be the same town you were raised in, but it might be another place. It might be a valley, it might be a desert, it might be a swamp, but find some area that you really like enough so you’re going to stick there the rest of your life.”
Pete then shared: “When I meet somebody who says there’s really no hope — you know, things are going to get from worse to worse, and this is the last century of the human race — I tell them, ‘Did you expect to see our great Watergate president leave office the way he did?’ They say, ‘No, I guess I didn’t.’ I say, ‘Did you expect the Pentagon to have to leave Vietnam the way it did?’ They say, ‘No, I didn’t.’ I say, ‘Did you expect to see the Berlin Wall come down so peacefully, the way it did?’ They say, ‘No, I really didn’t expect that.’ Then I say, ‘Did you expect to see Mandela head of South Africa?’ They say, ‘Oh no, no, I really didn’t expect that. I thought he’d rot in jail forever, the rest of his life.’
“ ‘Well,’ I say, ‘If you couldn’t predict those things, don’t be confident that you can predict there’s no hope.’ ”
It’s now our turn to carry that torch of justice, equity and freedom out into the world. We’ve got work to do. The future of our children depends upon it.
Larry Long, of Minneapolis, is a Smithsonian Folkways recording artist.