I was 15 years old when I heard a Pete Seeger album for the first time. Looking back on it, I think it’s kind of amazing that old-fashioned, conservative Afton, New York, a place that probably hasn’t elected a Democrat as mayor since the Civil War, actually had a Pete Seeger album in the high school library. I knew who he was from all the reading I’d done, but I’d never before heard the reedy voice accompanied by twelve-string guitar or plucky banjo.
The man was my grandparents’ age, but I was so enthralled by the music that I didn’t even notice. The voice and the songs were so genuine, so heartfelt, and so warm and inviting that they just captivated me. Whether he was leading a chorus of hundreds in We Shall Overcome or singing the Cuban popular song Guantanamera (hey, I thought, we sing that in chorus!), I loved them all.
At some point in high school, I got my hands on a copy of his Waist Deep in the Big Muddy album, with the title song considered so subversive in the sixties that they wouldn’t let him sing it on TV. For a teenager in a town where half a dozen of my school teachers lived within a five-minute walk of my house, that was way too cool. I devoured those songs; some of them are still on my iPod.
The summer before my senior year, he appeared in a PBS special, a concert he’d done with Arlo Guthrie, and I watched it every time they re-ran it. My favorite song from that show was one he said his sister Peggy had written, titled I’m Gonna Be An Engineer, about the struggle of a woman who wanted to be an engineer at a time when society said women should just be moms. I remember playing and singing that song for one of my sister’s social work classes when we were both students at SUNY Brockport.
Eventually, the wide-eyed teenaged boy grew up, and I moved on to other infatuations, but I never lost my affection for Pete Seeger and his music. He made me laugh, he made me think, he made me feel, and he pricked my conscience. And he did it all with a twelve-string guitar, a banjo, a sturdy voice, and one hell of a lot of courage. He was a patriot in the truest sense of the word — he loved his country deeply and never relented in his work to make it live closer to its highest ideals.
Pete left this life Monday night at the young age of 94. The music world, America, and I are all poorer for his loss. Death was the only answer to the question he sang so many times:
God bless you, Pete Seeger. And thank you.