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Birney Imes: Hand on heart for Pete Seeger


This May 13, 1975, file photo shows folk singer Pete Seeger, left, performing at a rally at Carnegie Hall in New York. The American troubadour, folk singer and activist died Monday. He was 94.

This May 13, 1975, file photo shows folk singer Pete Seeger, left, performing at a rally at Carnegie Hall in New York. The American troubadour, folk singer and activist died Monday. He was 94. Photo by: AP Photo/Richard Drew


Birney Imes



Tuesday morning I turned on the radio and was greeted by the news of Pete Seeger's death. "Impossible," I thought, stunned. Later, the same broadcast included a report on homeless veterans living in the streets of New York in subfreezing weather. It occurred to me the two stories might be connected in an odd, if unintended way. 


A voice for peace goes silent as the unseen victims of war endure the miseries of its aftermath.  


It seemed like Pete Seeger, the iconic folksinger and insistent voice for justice, would always be with us. He died Monday in a New York hospital. He was 94.  


I saw Seeger at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in the early '80s. He was tall, ramrod straight and dignified, just as you might expect. The five-string banjo he carried -- the one on which "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender" was written -- seemed like a natural appendage. His music was simple, infectious. Pete lit into "If I Had a Hammer," and by the second line we were one, singing and clapping in unison. It was impossible not to join in. 


He wrote songs and he reinterpreted the songs of others that might have fallen into obscurity had he not sang them: "Good Night, Irene," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?" "We Shall Overcome" and "This Land is Your Land." 


He championed the work of Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) and Woody Guthrie and considered his role in the continuation of their music an important personal accomplishment. 


To follow Seeger's career is to follow the arc of American history in the second half of the 20th century. He supported striking tobacco workers in the '40s; endured the McCarthyism of the '50s and was conspicuous in the anti-war and civil rights movements of the '60s. He campaigned for nuclear disarmament, AIDS research and against apartheid in South Africa. He campaigned to clean up the Hudson River. As recently as 2011, he joined protestors in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Seeger was there, indignant, critical, yet never hating.  


Somehow, we shall overcome, with music. 


"I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody," Seeger told McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee. "I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature. . . . I love my country very deeply." (Seeger served in the Army during World War II.) 


President Bill Clinton described Seeger as "an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them." 


Seeger bonded with audiences wherever he went. At a concert in Moscow's Tchaikovsky Hall, he led an audience of 10,000 non-English speaking Russians in "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore." 


The comments about Seeger following The Washington Post's obituary offer a sense of the man. Here is a small selection: 




Nickindc: It's been a long time since I last cried. Today I sobbed. 




RichardBunn: I am a conservative but Pete Seeger was an AMERICAN. Thank you Pete for speaking your mind, for standing up for what you believe, and for your talent. You made a difference! 




PollyTicks: I remember seeing Pete Seeger as a guest (along with Arlo and Steve Goodman) at a Harry Chapin concert (early 70s). It was a fundraiser in a Long Island high school, as many of Chapin's concerts were. I noticed two things about Pete: 


* when he played, the other artists looked at him in awe. 


* when others played, he had to join in. You'd see Chapin play a song and after a few bars Pete would start picking and play in the background for the rest of the song. He couldn't NOT play. 


It was wonderful. 




I Need Coffee: Pete was one of the nicest guys I have ever known. 


He stuck to his beliefs for his entire 75-year career. He stood against McCarthy, he marched with Martin Luther King, and was just so nice and decent the whole time. 


If you needed help with your boat, he would help you out, and if he needed help with his, he was always congenial about it. 


I only met him a few times, but he was so incredibly nice, especially to the kids. 




lorenzotedesco2: Curious that there was no mention of the Peekskill Riots of 1949 in this story. Seeger along with other folk musicians were subjected to a gauntlet of stone throwers at a concert to celebrate our freedoms. It has been said that Seeger took some of the rocks hurled at him and his family and used them to build a fireplace. What a time. What a country. This land is your land? 




ftb3: "This Land Is Your Land" should be our national anthem. 


*hand on heart for Pete Seeger* 


RIP, dear man.


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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