President Obama spoke to the nation last night of the very real dangers of income inequality. Pete Seeger, during a remarkable career that spanned 70 years, sang of it. And of the other things that American progressives have concerned themselves with during that time: workers’ rights, civil rights, social injustice, environmental degradation.
Seeger was passionate and unapologetic about his left-wing politics, whether singing, writing (he wrote the songs “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn, Turn, Turn,” among others), talking, marching, protesting or appearing at events: an artist with a banjo and cause.
His beliefs got him into trouble — blacklisted in fact — during the McCarthy era, but he was eventually able to overcome (“We Shall Overcome” is another song he popularized) and resurrect his career. Even those who didn’t agree with his politics, or considered him naive, respected him for his honesty, sincerity and principles.
Seeger’s music and storytelling influenced not only other folk icons like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins, but a wide range of American musicians, from Willie Nelson to Bruce Springsteen to Dave Matthews, with whom he appeared at Saratoga Performing Arts Center for last year’s Farm Aid.
New Yorkers owe Seeger a particular debt of gratitude for his activism on behalf of protecting and cleaning the Hudson River, along which he lived in Dutchess County. And it was a life well lived, showing us not only the power of song (a favorite expression of Seeger’s) but commitment.