Book Review: Gleaned from letters, essays, and articles, “Pete Seeger: In His Own Words” reveals how the celebrated folk singer has considered, at every turn, what it means to sing out in a world where the din of injustice is deafening.
When a pair of writers expressed interest in publishing Pete Seeger: In His Own Words, one of Seeger’s first requests was “Don’t make me out to be a saint.”
Banjo in hand, Seeger has championed causes from labor to civil rights to the environment, revived our oldest folk songs, and co-authored new folk classics like “If I Had a Hammer,” so the impulse to portray him as saintly is understandable. But to do so would be a misunderstanding of his message: It doesn’t take a saint to make the world a better place. Real, flawed people do it all the time.
“When I sing [‘Amazing Grace’],” he writes, “I usually remind audiences that the words were written by a man who had for ten years been captain of a slave ship, but in his thirties he quit and … started the antislavery movement in England. He turned his life around and gave us hope that we can turn our country around.”
Seeger is no more a superman than he is a saint. As his letters attest, he has long battled fear, loneliness, and the fear of failure that stems from an overwhelming sense of duty—to his family, his community, his country. He has considered, at every turn, what it means to sing out in a world where the din of injustice is often deafening. But his songs assert that to sing is to recognize the power of one’s own voice, to declare and defend its worth.
In His Own Words is a collection gleaned from Seeger’s letters, essays, and articles. (Some previously unpublished writing in this collection is from the ephemera of decades that Seeger kept stored in his barn.) It begins with a letter from 13-year-old Pete to his mother, asking for funds so that he can purchase a “big banjo and play in the very little jazz band,” then proceeds through his involvement in the labor movement, World War II, McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, and onward to the present day.
We see Seeger’s development over distinct phases of life: as a young man distraught at the world’s injustice, and as a young soldier frustrated at being kept stateside during the war. As a musician impressed by friends and mentors Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Lee Hays. As a new father delighted by his children, a mature activist worrying for his grandchildrens’ future, and as an older man committed to a legacy of clean water for every living soul along a 315-mile river.
To consider Seeger’s life is to learn a lesson in citizenship. His personal story unfolded during the century when America came into its own as a superpower. Even as Seeger worked to keep traditional music alive, he was unable to sit still while history sped forward.
In His Own Words displays how Seeger’s unique blend of practicality, optimism, and humanism shaped his life of engagement with social responsibility. When he and his family were attacked during the Peekskill Riots in 1949, Seeger took home the stones that had broken his car windows—and cemented them into his fireplace. When he and a crowd marched singing to Columbus Circle amid the thick of the Occupy movement last year, Seeger stopped to pick up a piece of trash from the sidewalk. And, when he found himself cited for contempt of Congress during the McCarthy era, Seeger sat down to write a time capsule letter to his grandchildren. “Communism,” he wrote, “has urged me on, to continually learn, to continually better myself in every way, to always give more for the common good of the working people of America and the world.”
Seeger wrote that letter at a time when he was blacklisted for his political beliefs. Two generations later, at the age of 89, he sang “This Land Is Your Land” at the inauguration concert for America’s first black president.
The pragmatism and hope that carried him to that moment is expressed in words he wrote in 1965, during the civil rights struggle and the war in Vietnam, that ring just as true today: “If the world survives these dangerous times, the folk process will go on, and music and poetry can help us teach love and common sense to foolish people who think that money and power are the important things in life.”
“If the world survives these dangerous times, the folk process will go on, and music and poetry can help us teach love and common sense to foolish people who think that money and power are the important things in life.”
“The best thing you can do is make up your mind that you will be living in an unpleasant world for much of your lives. This is not pessimism; it’s maturity—the beginning of wisdom.”
“I’m just one more grain of sand in this world, but I’d rather throw my weight, however small, on the side of what I think is right than selfishly look after my own fortunes and have to live with a bad conscience.”