Friday, January 1, 2016

Pete Seeger and Vocation

I don't know when I first heard the name Pete Seeger.  I suspect he was mentioned on Family Ties.  Seeger, like everything loved by Elise and Michael Keaton was made to seem a tad quaint. The Keaton's 60's radicalism was to be taken alongside a bracing dose of (materialism) Mallory, (capitalism) Alex, and sports (Jennifer.)

Anyway, about 10 years ago I watched a PBS documentary on Seeger and determined afterwards that I wanted a vocation like Pete's. I certainly didn't mean that I was going to become a protest singer or learn the five string banjo.

But, there were several things about the life that Pete lived that I find exemplary:

(1)  His profoundly democratizing vision of his art. This is a self-evident claim --folk music as an art  is axiomatically democratic.  Yet,  he lived this impulse out in so many profound ways--I think of his work with the Highland School which was so connected to the Freedom Schools, union organizing, and the creation of a vision of grassroots organizing;  however, the most stunning and perpetual sign of this democratizing vision was his capacity to get people to sing whether the stage was small or the stage was large.

Studs Terkel expressed it better than I am able to:

 Before we hoist one for Pete, let's also remember that he's one of the best choirmasters in the country. He may not have the technique of Robert Shaw, but the result is just as explosive. Imagine an audience of thousands as Pete sings, say, "Wimoweh." As Pete waves his arms gently, the audience reacts as a professional choir might. I've seen a wizened little man, who obviously is somebody's bookkeeper, at the command of Pete become a basso profundo, reaching two octaves lower than Chaliapin. This is the nature of Pete Seeger, who reaches out toward the further shores more effectively and more exhilaratedly than anyone I've ever run into

(2) His Earnestness:  I have come to realize that what distinguishes earnestness from sentimentalism is faithfulness.  A sentiment is fleeting.  It is easy to be patronizing towards sentiments, but people who live lives of deep fidelity to their sentiments become beyond disdain.  Fred Rogers proved this--his show would be little but feel good rot if he hadn't embodied those values daily.  Peter Seeger lived out a fidelity to his sentiments for 94 years.

(3)His Faithfulness:  He didn't just add the "shall" to "We Shall Overcome," he was there singing the song faithfully at Highlander School when MLK was there. And, more to the point, he was there singing the song as a dirge when the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were discovered in Mississippi.

(4) His Courage:  It wasn't for no reason that the FBI tracked  him or that J. Edgar hounded. He was willing to risk tangibly for truth and democratic values.  He realized that these values don't demand some sort of "once-and for-all"  sacrifice, but a daily fidelity to the hard work of letting every voice be heard, of listening to the some times strange songs that other people sing, and training others to not only listen closely, but also to sing out boldly.