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Pete Seeger enters 9th decade as an activist
Question of the Day
You could say Seeger inherited his activism. His great-great grandfather came to America seeking self-determination after reading the Declaration of Independence. His great-grandfather was an abolitionist. His father was a socialist who spoke out against World War I.
His views didn’t always make him popular. He was a member of the Communist Party, something he later apologized for. He was initially for staying out of World War II, but changed his mind when Hitler broke his nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union. He also spoke out against the war in Vietnam, a move that got him censored on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and visited North Vietnam in 1972.
Seeger’s influence is incalculable, however. He’s the rare artist whose music and message transcends time, speaking to his children and their children and on and on.
The son of a musicologist and a violinist, he began leading others in song at 8 and was introduced to protest music around 12. Early on, he saw beauty and possibility in traditional songs often considered regional hokum or race records unfit for an upstanding white audience.
His message found an eager audience in the young generation of kids who would go on to define rock `n’ roll, changing American and world culture in myriad ways. He introduced Martin Luther King Jr. to “We Shall Overcome.” In his hands, songs like “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” and “Turn, Turn, Turn!” became galvanizing anthems.
He remains a voice for the disenfranchised _ the poor of Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta and victims of racism and greed.
Kira Moyer-Sims, a 19-year-old participant in the Occupy Wall Street movement, was introduced to Seeger’s music on mix CDs from her high-school social studies teacher. Those songs, from a time that seems far away in the age of the iPod, spoke to her with modern urgency and helped push her into the protest ranks.
“Hearing this new music for me was huge and made me realize totally the importance of our nation’s history and the fact that we can change it if we want to,” she said. “Seeing Pete Seeger there in solidarity with the thing I’ve been living the past 38 days … was phenomenal for me.”
The idea of protesting for progressive change seemed to have gone out of vogue in the U.S. _ or at least disappeared from public view. After the flower children moved on to mid-life and minivans, Americans turned their focus inward. Fewer people had time for simple songs with complex meanings.
Rodriguez-Seeger said he was attracted to the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement when he joined a support march two weeks ago in Las Vegas. He was drawn to the anti-establishment message but noticed immediately that something was missing.
“I saw a lot of people getting angry at us for marching, getting out of their SUVs and giving us the finger and screaming obscenities” and using anti-gay slurs, Rodriguez-Seeger said. “I thought, if we were singing right now my gut tells me they’d be less inclined to behave like that because it’s very difficult when you’re hearing music to get that angry.”
Davis, a 59-year-old Bronx bluesman who has been friends with the Seegers for 50 years, saw more than a little something of the grandfather in the grandson when he looked over at the pair Friday night. Rodriguez-Seeger helped organize the march, which came together in 30 hours and was driven for the most part by social-media sites like Twitter, Facebook and now YouTube, where dozens of videos mark the night.
“Pete is seeing his life come to fruition,” Davis said. “He is seeing the fruits of his labors. All the years he invested in Tao, all the years I used to see him take Tao around when Tao was just a teenager, have paid off beautifully.”
And the grandfather doesn’t mind the fact that a new generation of Seegers is lifting its voice, even as he gladly slides into the background. Pete Seeger, in fact, says he’s a little bemused by all the attention.
“Of course it’s a great honor, but I’d just as soon be anonymous,” he said. He would like to go down to Zuccotti Park, the heart of the movement, but he hopes he can just do it on the sly without the star power. Maybe next week on Halloween. “I won’t be recognized,” he muses. “Everybody will be in costume.”
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