The legendary folk singing icon Pete Seeger once said that at the point when you have more than a few people talking about just about anything, you were "doing politics."Boy, was he ever right. As this giant of a man who has made such an impression upon all of us reaches his 88th year, this nation owes him quite a debt. Before Al Gore's current environmental push was a gleam in the former VP's eye, Pete and a group of friends christened the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater as a symbol of hope for the nation's dirty rivers and the environment. Pete and the Clearwater have done such an amazing job spearheading the river cleanup that these days people are actually swimming in the Hudson River.
When you think about the way music affects our contemporary politics, no one can hold a candle to the man everyone knows as "Pete." Even if you consider just the verses he wrote and his popularization of "We Shall Overcome," he is surely one of the most important social activists and poets of our time. And he's done a lot more than that.
Recently Bruce Springsteen recorded an album called "The Seeger Sessions," reminding us of our indebtedness to Seeger and introducing a whole new generation to his music. It's fitting, because one of the most notable things about Pete is that he always gives credit to everyone else. When he performs with people far less renown than he, Seeger always insists that everyone receive an equal share of the proceeds. He's known for sending the royalties from music he adapted back to the original country of origin.
Pete and his wonderful wife of all these many years, Toshi, live in a few rooms laden with books. As a teenager, I used to write to him and he always wrote back. Extraordinary. I once interviewed him for public radio for several hours and then offered the tapes, complete with snippets of his music, as a premium. It was his gift to public radio and when I thanked him for his incredible generosity that had generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to public radio, he characteristically thanked our radio stations for what they had done.
I was scared to death when he and his troupe stayed at our house in Great Barrington because I had read an interview with him in which he said that nobody needed to live in more than just a few rooms. We live in a Victorian with lots of rooms. When we showed him to the rooms where he and Toshi would stay, she looked at Pete and said, "Peter, this is just the kind of house I want where I can ask all our relatives to stay." What a relief!
When you think about it, there really are two kinds of politics in this country. There is the good old Democratic-Republican politics and then there is issue politics, where Pete leads by example. He may be in his upper 80s but he is out there most weeks, no matter what the weather, demonstrating with a few other hearty souls his opposition to the insane Iraqi invasion, just as he did years ago when we invaded Viet Nam.
It was Pete who, with his partner in the Weavers, Lee Hays, wrote the song, "If I Had a Hammer." He also wrote a Viet Nam protest song, "Waste Deep In the Big Muddy (And the Big Fool Says to Push On)." He could have been writing about our current president and not Lyndon Johnson. More recently, Pete wrote a great tune in support of our troops, "Bring Them Home."
It is extraordinary how, when the Democrats and Republicans are trying to get a leg up and get elected, they will support a cause Pete Seeger has been championing for years. The environment, of course, is one such area. The war in Iraq is another. With the exception of men like Scott Ritter, the Republican Marine who was a U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq and had the courage to come out and say there were no weapons of mass destruction, the cowards who were more interested in getting elected than truth were nowhere to be found.
Just take Hillary Clinton, for example. The polls tell us that she's doing very well in New York. When I ask Democrats I know whether they would vote for Mrs. Clinton or Barak Obama, there is near unanimity on voting for Obama. Of course, it could be that I am talking to the wrong people, although I don't think so. Apparently Hillary is not a happy camper because in order to reverse the perception that she didn't have courage in opposing the war, she and Robert Byrd have attempted to reverse the resolution that gave President Bush the mandate to go to war. You can just see the Clinton people in the war room saying, "Uh oh, how can we stop the vote hemorrhaging?"
So to Pete Seeger, a happy 88th and a plea to keep doing what he is doing.
From McCarthy to Iraq, he has always been there, risking all. That's a lot more than we can say about most of these political types.
Alan S. Chartock is a political commentator and president and CEO of WAMC.
© 2007 The Troy Record