His death this week brought on a moment of sadness for me, although I hadn't thought about him for quite a long time, his music, his ethos, his example constituted one of the building blocks of who I am today.
Many of us know his songs . . . as sung by him or by other artists: "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "This Little Light of Mine," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Rambling Man," "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," "If I Had a Hammer." Those were all in my coffeehouse repertoire back in the day. The values expressed in those songs . . . humility, patience, compassion, hope, and the imperative to speak out against the opposite of those values . . . spoke to me as a teenager in the 60s and a college student in the early 70s (yes, I'm dating myself . . . do the math if you must).
One of Seeger's many gifts to me was his appreciation of all sorts of ethnic folk music. He sang Irish folk melodies, Appalachian songs . . . and even Yiddish and Hebrew folk melodies. His expansive appreciation of music from many cultures and many ethnicities gave me "permission" to delve into the world of Jewish music even as I built up my coffeehouse-protest-song-folk-ballad repertoire.
In a remembrance of Pete Seeger by Arlo Guthrie this week, Guthrie wrote about one of Seeger's most compelling qualities:
I remember watching how he handled the audience. . . . he had an authority over the audience that allowed them to relax and sing along with him. My eyes just opened up and I couldn’t believe what was happening in front of me. He would just wave his hand, and you could hear people singing.
Read more: Pete Seeger Remembered by Arlo Guthrie | TIME.com http://entertainment.time.com/2014/01/30/pete-seeger-arlo-guthrie/#ixzz2rzYEB8Y5
Pete Seeger was not a flower child . . . he was a man of simple tastes and deep convictions who showed us that speaking truth to power with humility and perseverance was the dignified way to protest: the environment, the Vietnam War, prejudice were all causes Seeger stood up for.
I have found no evidence that Pete Seeger was familiar with the theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel, but Seeger's response to a question about his own belief and faith links these two great sages:
When asked about his religious or spiritual views, Seeger replied: "I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. [I used to say] I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.".
Pete Seeger was an iconic figure for America: he taught us to embrace our culture and our values and he taught us that our voices are essential, raised in song or prose, to the endeavor of living in a value-inspired society.