I can’t let Pete Seeger go without saying how bleak it is to think of him not being around anymore. He, his music, his nature have been a presence in my life as far back as memory takes me. He was like one of Mom’s plain, home-knitted afghans—never demanding attention, never pretending to be anything beyond what he seemed to be, but always there, draped over the back of a couch or the foot of a bed, and always good and warm and comforting when you needed something to put over your shoulders on a cold, gray day.
America has had its share of cold, gray days during the past 94 years, hasn’t it? That’s how old Mr. Seeger was when he passed last week—94. Born in May 1919, he got here just in time to see American women vote for the first time, imagine that. He witnessed the great stock market crash when he was 9, and the depths of the Depression before he reached puberty. I grew up with people like that. My parents were like that, and looking back, I now suspect those hard, hard times never entirely left them.
Until his end, there was always a whiff of those hard times about Pete, too. (I don’t for a second believe he would mind us speaking of him so familiarly; he was probably the least stuffy American icon a person could name.) Even the last time I saw him, singing once again of the glory of democracy at Obama’s first inauguration, it was easy to imagine he had hitched a ride to Washington in an empty boxcar, and had had nothing to eat in days but a can of beans he heated over a campfire in a patch of woods just outside the city.
It wasn’t an act. It wasn’t an image. I’m confident that Pete Seeger never sought out the counsel of a PR firm or a career choreographer to promote himself. What we saw was who he’d become back in the hard times, hoofing around the country with the likes of Woody Guthrie and Lee Hayes, singing for, and to, the poor, the oppressed, the desperate, the lowliest of Americans—and hammering against the forces that made, and kept, those Americans so desperate.
Like Obama, Pete was a community organizer, only his method was music and his community was America. Like Obama, he was accused of un-American activities, and by the same sort of vicious goons as we are cursed with this present day. Unlike Obama, Pete actually dabbled in communism for a time. But he and many people like him proved one can be a communist and a proud American at the same time. This is something the goons will never grasp, that the struggle for workers’ rights, civil rights, justice and dignity are as American as Wall Street and General Motors. That in fact, that struggle is, and always has been, the very heart of America. That it is Pete Seeger and people like him who have made America something to be proud of.
By now, it is Pete we remember, not those who tried to silence him. It is his bell, not theirs, which rings in the morning, rings in the evening for generations to come. It is him, not them, that we can welcome into our imaginations as a dear friend we never met, a gentle presence we took too much for granted, a good and warm and comforting memory over our cold nation’s shoulders. And it is Pete, not them, we will miss and we will mourn.