Recently, as I took an early morning look at my i-Phone, I read the news flash that Pete Seeger had died. Most of the almost six thousand students I work with at Lipscomb University will have never heard of Pete Seeger—even though the news of his passing at age 94 may have flashed on their phones as well. But, even not knowing him, many students would have appreciated the spirit of his music and perhaps a few, even the music itself.
In the world of country, hard rock, new age and mellow jazz, folk music, as a prominent part of the American music scene, got left behind. American “contemporary” folk music grew in prominence during the 1940s and perhaps peeked in the 1960s. I missed it by a decade or so but always felt a kinship to the simple instrumentation, the social justice lyrics and the vision for our country that often was represented in it. In fact, on the same device I am writing these reflections I have downloaded albums (legally, I might say) of folk groups like The Brothers Four; Peter, Paul and Mary; Glenn Yarbrough and The Limelighters; The New Christy Minstrels; as well as The Kingston Trio. I know, my students at Lipscomb would not have heard of them either!
Familiar or not, Pete Seeger was an icon of the contemporary folk movement. With a single banjo or guitar and the style of a balladeer, this writer and singer crafted music that has endured for decades. The cry for social justice in “If I Had a Hammer,” the heart-felt sorrow of “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” and the observations of life in “Turn! Turn! Turn!” reflect well his politics and his music. He is largely credited for popularizing the civil rights affirmation in song, “We Shall Overcome!”
Pete Seeger was not always welcomed with his counter-cultural views. In fact, during the McCarthy era of anti-communism in the 1950s, he was called before Congress to testify about his political and societal views (which he refused to do, almost landing him in jail). He was ostracized and relegated to singing in small venues like coffee houses, union halls and on college campuses. But, over the decades, the emotions of those political moments subsided, and in 2009 he was a featured performer at a pre-inaugural concert for President Barak Obama on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Still singing the same songs. Still calling us to be a better America.
Many college students today share Pete Seeger’s commitment to issues of social justice, although the issues themselves have evolved since the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. While the agendas of racial justice, peace and environmental stewardship are still challenges for us, young people today would also advance concerns of human trafficking and global poverty. Yet, the essence of Pete Seeger's music—a call to the more respectful and humane treatment of our world and those in it—is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Pete Seeger was one of the voices that reminded us of the gap between what was and what should be.
From the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” the words of which he took almost verbatim from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, Pete Seeger affirmed the realities of life.
To Everything (Turn! Turn! Turn!)
There is a season (Turn! Turn! Turn!)
And a time for every purpose under Heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep…
A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time to love, a time to hate
A time of peace, I swear it's not too late!
With his passing, we acknowledge the reality of his words. But with his life, we celebrate his calling to make our world a better place. His season was a good one.