Alaska Notebook: Seeger gone, but songs are here to stay

January 30, 2014 

If I Had a Hammer

Pete Seeger, who died Jan. 27 at 94, had a musical career unparalleled in length and rarely matched in influence.

As an unknown young performer, he sang to men and women born while Abraham Lincoln was president. As an aged troubadour recognized worldwide, he was heard by toddlers born while Barack Obama was in the White House.

Seeger songs have been recorded in French, Italian, German, Dutch, Swedish, Russian, Polish, Czech, Chinese, Japanese, Finnish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, Croatian and Slovenian. In this country, artists ranging from Harry Belafonte to Dolly Parton have covered them.

At first, audiences did not understand Seeger believed singing was a form of direct political action. Songs could not only change hearts, they could change policies. If you sang "We Shall Overcome," you would overcome. This is a remarkable expression of optimism, a quality so fundamental to Pete Seeger as to seem genetic.

Seeger was a child of the Depression; his politics reflected his experience. A man of the Left, he was involved from the Left in the major issues consuming America in the 20th century, standing in opposition to plutocrats, bosses and exploiters. He briefly participated in the Communist Party; he later regretted it and said so publicly. He also said that if the Communist Party came to power in the United States, he would be one of the first people arrested. Orthodoxy was an anathema to Pete Seeger -- as was political intimidation.

Summoned before the House Un-American Affairs Committee in the 1950s, he was asked to name the locations where he had sung one of his songs. He told the committee they had no right to make such a demand of him - where he sang was his business - then offered to sing the committee the song. The chairman declined the suggestion and cited him for contempt of Congress. Contempt of Congress did not prevent him from becoming, for his music and his courage, an American hero.

There is no one-size-fits-all American hero. Search for what our heroes share and you will find they all gave us something enduring. Pete Seeger gave us his songs.

"If I Had a Hammer," "Where Have All The Flowers Gone," "Turn, Turn Turn," and "We Shall Overcome" are as much a part of the American song book as anything by Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern and Rogers and Hart. Our country will be singing Seeger as long as there are Americans left to lift their voices in song.

-- Michael Carey

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