What were his last words? Possibly something like, “I swear it’s not too late.”
Pete Seeger, the slim-Jim songster, folk-music activist, Woodie Guthrie running mate and banjoing balladeer, died (apparently peacefully) in his sleep on Monday at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he had spent six days. According to his grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson, the 94-year-old Seeger was active and robust right up until the end. “He was chopping wood 10 days ago,” he said.
Seeger often called himself “a tool for the song” and during the 1960s and 1970s the parchment body of his banjo sported the message “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” – a pacifist’s riff on the famous slogan “This machine kills fascists,” which Guthrie had inscribed on his own guitar.
There’s a difference between living life peacefully and going through it quietly. Seeger was as noticeable as the five-string instrument at which he plucked. There are no half ways with banjos or the affable but unwavering Seeger – you’re either on board with them or you are not. Some weren’t. The Harvard dropout was blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his left-wing views and lyrics.
The songs Seeger wrote and sang are at the bedrock of American folklore and protest music. He was particularly drawn to rural songs, which “had all the meat of life in them,” he told David Dunaway, for the Seeger biography How Can I Keep From Singing. “Their humour had a bite, it was not trivial. Their tragedy was real, not sentimental.”
A man for all seasons and many progressive causes, Seeger’s canon included the prepositional ode to unity and justice If I Had a Hammer, with the defiantly human line “I’d hammer out danger, I’d hammer out a warning, I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land.” The Seeger co-write was recorded in 1950 by The Weavers – a folk quartet comprised of Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, Fred Hellerman and Seeger – and was a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary in 1962.
In between, in 1955, the song was involved in a matter before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which may have lumped the hammer together with a sickle. Seeger was asked about a performance of the song at a dinner involving leaders of the Communist Party USA. His refusal to co-operate with the congressional snoops led to his blacklisting.
I saw Pete Seeger in person just once, at Hugh’s Room in Toronto, in 2008. He was rheumy-eyed and a little frail, as even the most fit octogenarians might be. He sang about little lights that shone, and that there were times to dance and times to mourn. We had heard those words before, and the occasion was warmly communal as any music experience I’d ever taken part in.
I believe he offered 2002’s Take it From Dr. King, a cross-generational anti-war song. I seem to recall him teaching the audience the refrain, “Don’t say it can’t be done, the battle’s just begun / Take it from Dr. King, you too can learn to sing so drop the gun.” You can take it from Dr. King, or you can take it from Mr. Seeger – it’s never too late.
With a report from James Adams.