Last night, at around 9:30 pm, Pete Seeger passed on. He was 94, so it shouldn’t have been a huge shock or surprise … but Pete was always so engaged, inspiring, and such a curious amalgamation of sage wisdom with a flexibility and ability to evolve that is usually reserved for the young, that it’s still hard to believe he’s gone.
You’ll find other outlets where an expansive detailing of his life and accomplishments are chronicled – we included a link to the fine NY Times obituary with our earlier announcement – and you can find a bunch of others with a simple Google search, so I’d like to use this space to process what Pete meant to Sing Out!, the folk community, and to me as a friend.
It’s well known that Pete always wanted to be a journalist – that’s what he studied in college, before his life’s works took over and moved him to another path – so it’s not really surprising that he took a leadership role in the founding of People’s Songs, first, and then Sing Out! which followed it as the publications of the musician’s and organizer’s cooperative People’s Artists.
I’m a relatively young guy, so, like many of you, I first “discovered” Pete as a young kid in summer camp … learning the songs and philosophy he so craftily took to camps and colleges in the 1950s and 1960s when the Red Scare and “proper” culture tried to sideline his voice. But when I met Pete in the early 1970s as a young enthusiast and volunteer for Sing Out! my world – much like the world of thousands of others like me – was changed forever.
Pete, empowered by his special humanity and genius, had, early on, happened upon a few basic truths: Change comes from community. We are all stronger together than apart. And voices raised together in song can inspire and teach. He disliked what he often called “the cult of personality” – the kind of celebrity culture that divides us into entertainers and consumers – and often bristled at awards and recognition that shined a light on his own “fame” instead of the work, and the broader efforts of the communities he inspired.
He was always a treasure trove of ideas and passion for Sing Out! I can’t speak first hand for those that preceded me, but up until the last few months, there wasn’t a week that went by when our mailbox wasn’t blessed with several packages, letters, postcards and notes from Pete about what we should be listening to and passing along. I know, too, that hundreds if not thousands of singers, songwriters, activists and organizers got encouragement and inspiration from him, too. It wasn’t that he had a gift to make you think you were getting his full attention … he truly was deeply interested in millions of ideas, songs, movements and causes.
In 1982, I was heading up to the Hudson River Revival to set up a Sing Out! booth. Stopping by the office on 8th Avenue in NYC, the staff told me not to sell subscriptions. As they put it, Sing Out! was out of money and done. While I was setting up my table with back issues, Pete happened by and asked how things were going. I told him, and he sat down to talk about how important he thought Sing Out! was. Recalling the very first issue of People’s Songs, mimeographed and stapled together all those years ago, he said “even if we have to go back to mimeographing songs and sending them around, Sing Out! must continue.” I was inspired. And so were a handful of friends that helped us move the magazine to Pennsylvania.
Pete agreed to come up with some money to publish a small newsletter, which we edited together, while we fund raised and restructured a new non-profit organization. He did a series of concerts to pay off old debts, and helped organized a new board built with musicians and the folk community.
I’m sure that Clearwater, itself, has similar stories about how Pete helped create the critical mass to make the great work they do happen. And I know that there are many, many other organizations and individuals with similar stories to tell.
Pete started writing his “Johnny Appleseed Jr.” column for Sing Out! in 1954. (The column morphed into “Appleseeds” years later because he so deplored even the slightest chance that anyone would think he was talking about himself rather than the work.) The beautiful part about Pete’s life is that he so saw that spreading of “seeds” – ideas and inspiration – as his mission … and while we had Pete in our world for a mere 94 years, we’re going to have the fruits of his work and inspiration for generations.
We will miss you, Pete … and we are so grateful to Dan, Tinya and Mika (and all their beautiful children) for sharing their parents (and grandparents) with us all these years. Our hearts are broken, but our spirit – AND our voices – will carry on!
– Mark D. Moss