I have been listening to the music of the incomparable Pete Seeger since his death last week at the age of 94. There is plenty to listen to, Seeger wrote, performed and recorded music for more than 70 years. Realistically, I knew that his life had to end sometime, but there was something about Seeger that seemed endless and eternal. Though his voice had weakened with age, he was on stage last summer at Farm Aid, leading a sing-along of “The Hammer Song.”
I first heard it performed by Peter, Paul and Mary in 1962 and I became hooked on folk music. I bought my first guitar at Sears not long after that. It was hardly a fine instrument but I began to find joy in playing music as well as listening to it, and Seeger’s tunes were accessible to a beginner. What I discovered this week, that I am one among many who point to Seeger as the one who got them started in music. That was just one amazing thing about him: he had a way of transcending the boundaries of genre.
What I did not realize in those early years of playing was that there was a lot more to Seeger than a revival of American folk music. As I grew up I began to learn more about the drive behind the music. Within him there was a deep-seated moral imperative. He not only sang the songs of the common, he identified with the struggle of the least, first taking up the cause of farm laborers during the Great Depression.
It was hardly an easy row to hoe. He could have simply taken the path of musical stardom, but that was not his journey. Instead, Seeger always stood with the oppressed, and it often put him at odds with those in power. In 1955, he was summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
A World War II veteran, Seeger refused to provide details of where and to whom he performed. Asked if he was invoking his Fifth Amendment, he said his refusal had nothing to do with self-incrimination and everything to do with his freedom as an American: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”
It was a courageous bit of defiance that resulted in a conviction for Contempt of Congress that was later overturned, and Seeger kept singing. In today’s language, I suppose he would be described as “spiritual but not religious,” but the world was his church and all people were his congregation with the front row seats reserved for those with the greatest need.
He believed in the power of music to change the world. Around the drum head of his banjo were the words, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Seeger’s body finally gave in to the finitude that confronts us all, but he is an American treasure that is endless and eternal.
• Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.