Tuesday, January 28, 2014

My Hero Pete Seeger

Although not a surprise--he was 94!--the death of folksinger/acitivist Pete Seeger saddens me. For more years than I like to admit to he has been one of my heroes. I was in high school when his and Burl Ives' recordings introduced me to folk music, and through folk music made me aware that the Fifties were not all that the later TV show HAPPY DAYS made them out to be. Mr. Seeger's involvement in the birth and spread of the Civil Rights Movement made me aware of the racial divide in our country and of the possibility of overcoming it.

I also became aware during those "happy days" of the anti-Communist witch hunts that rabid Congressmen were conducting against entertainers and actors suspsected of being even slightly "leftist." I had rejoiced when the folk group Pete had helped found "The Weavers" broke into the Top Ten songs with their hit "Good Night, Irene," but with the Congressional witch hunters branding Pete and his friends "Communists," their music soon disappeared from radio. It would not be until years later when Pete would be invited to sing on a TV program, and I am proud that it was one sponsored and produced by the National Council of Churches.

I eagerly bought the singer's LP records, listening to and being inspired by them, along with classical music and operas. I had my first opportunity to hear him when fellow pastor Roger Smith and I journeyed to Jackson, MS to join other "outside agitators" in The Miss. Summer Freedom Project. It was a sweltering night in an overcrowded "Negro church" in Jackson that the folksinger was entertaining the troops. This picture, whether taken by myself or by my friend Roger I can't recall (we both took so many and exchanged them that summer), is not detailed enough to show Pete's shirt soaked clear through and clinging to him. Hot though it was, he played and sang--or I should say, led singing, as he always saw himself as much of a catalyst for group singing as a solo performer--for over two hours. No one left, or as far as we were concerned, even thought of leaving early.

He was loved by all the Project participants for his courage as well as his music and advocacy of racial justice. Many other celebrities came to Jackson, which was good, but as far as I know, he was the only one who would go outside the city to some of the dangerous areas where the Klan ruled. Roger and I left early the next day to go to our assignment in Shaw (up in the Delta region), and all during our almost 3 weeks engaged in teaching, advising, canvassing for voter registration, and transporting would-be voters to the courthouse, memories of his leading us in singing of freedom and justice kept ringing in our minds and hearts.

The only other time I heard and met him in person was years later at the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York where he stayed for a few days and presented a concert. I thanked him for his inspiring work through the years and hesitatntly held out several of his albums for autographing, which he graciously did. These are cherished items, even though today I listen to the songs on digitally transferred copies.

As a fitting way to remember him I recommend that you borrow a copy of the wonderful documentary PETE SEEGER: The Power of Song, probably available at your local library. Even though I was familiar with some of the events of his long life, it revealed a wealth of additional ones that made me admire him all the more. My new book Blessed Are the Filmmakers, due out sometime this year, will contain a review and discussion guide for this film. Let us thank God for the long and useful life of this wonderful man!

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