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The Progressive

Rest in Peace Pete Seeger, A True Progressive Hero

Pete Seeger died yesterday at 94, but he’ll live on for generations to come.

Like the union organizer Joe Hill, whom Seeger helped to immortalize, Seeger and his songs will keep inspiring people around the world who are fighting injustice and striving to preserve the planet.

Along with Woody Guthrie, Seeger popularized a particular kind of folk music in America: progressive folk music.

It was music about working people and unions. It was music about racial justice. It was music about peace. It was music about taking care of the Earth. And it was music that was simple to learn and easy to sing.

I once heard an interview with Seeger who was saying that when he first heard Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” he marveled at its simplicity.

With the Weavers, Seeger became popular in 1950 and 1951 with “Goodnight Irene” and “On Top of Old Smokey” and “Farewell, It’s Been Good to Know You” and “Tzena, Tzena.”

But then Seeger and the other singers in the Weavers were blacklisted, and he was hauled before the House UnAmerican Activities Committees, where he refused to testify. He was convicted in 1955 for his refusal, but that conviction was later overturned.

Seeger played a big role in the culture of activism in this country. He was primarily responsible for popularizing “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil rights movement. And his anti-war song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” was also very influential in the movement to end the war in Vietnam, as was “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” which he defiantly sang on the Smothers Brothers comedy show after first being censored in 1967.

From the 1970s to last week, he threw himself into the environmental movement, and stressed the importance of working locally as well as globally.

He was a progressive hero for seven decades.

I saw Pete Seeger in concert many times. The first one was at a small event honoring Ralph Nader in the early 1980s, and Seeger was gracious and light-hearted.

After that, I saw him several times in concert in Madison with my wife, Jean, and we were always amazed at his energy and spirit, even into old age, and his insistence in getting the whole crowd singing.

He came by The Progressive’s offices once, about 25 years ago, and regaled us with stories. Not all of them were happy. The pain of the blacklist still registered in his voice when he told about how hard it was for him to make a living in the 1950s and early 1960s.

We ran an interview with Pete Seeger in The Progressive back in April 1986, which was conducted by Mike Ervin.

“This world won’t survive unless people realize that it’s a lot of fun to do things yourself,” Seeger said. “I believe we’ve forgotten what fun it is to lead a well-rounded life. Our age of specialization makes for efficient production, not for happiness.”

And this was his advice for activists: “The key issues are those that are close to you, geographically as well as spiritually. If someone says, ‘I want to change the world. Where do I go?’ I answer: ‘Stay right where you are. Don’t run away. Dig in.’"

Pete Seeger really dug in.

And we all owe him our deepest thanks for that.


Watch one of Seeger's last performances, at Willie Nelson's Farm Aid 2013:

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Matthew Rothschild

Matthew Rothschild

Matthew Rothschild is senior editor of The Progressive magazine.

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