For my parents
My being a radical activist is in no small part due to Pete Seeger – and my folks.
My mother was a civil rights and anti-war activist and my father a GI organizing against the war in Vietnam from within. They met organizing an anti-war Coffee House in Washington DC. I arrived on the scene two years later. I grew up learning that one must seek justice – whatever that means to you – and it became an integral part of who I am. The music of Pete Seeger played no small part in this. My parents would listen and sing the music all the time. My nighttime ‘lullabies’ were songs such as We Shall Overcome (mother) and Kevin Barry (father).
Listening to the lyrics as a child I can remember being so upset by songs such as I Come and Stand at Every Door, wondering if the child in the song was really a ghost and where Hiroshima was, and how children could die; or if miners all lived like was described in Mrs. Clara Sullivan’s Letter; or why would John Henry need to die to beat a machine. And then the songs for children, which also made me think – like learning what ostracized meant in Abiyoyo before I was even in school, with the lesson being the excluded can beat giants.
Living in Croton-on-Hudson much of my childhood I was lucky to have seen Pete Seeger perform at each Clearwater Revival my family would take me to. I can remember his presence, so normal and accessible, always trying to get everyone to participate – it was not about him though he was the performer. And we would see him doing the politics from the anti nuke protests against Indian Point to cleaning up the Hudson. It made and makes his music all the more powerful. He really sang to get people involved in changing the world.
As I got a little older, growing up with interracial siblings, I began to see and feel the injustices I had heard in some of Pete’s songs. And his lyrics meant all the more to me. Listening to Which Side Are You On with the civil rights songs my mother would sing were a support for my getting active in middle school – organizing against racism. And the anti war songs – the chilling Crow on the Cradle, singing that somebody’s baby is not coming back … it brought a realness to the war the US was making/supporting in Central America, and next I got involved in Central America solidarity in high school. Next was anti apartheid still in high school, and on and on over the years until Occupy, and continuing.
The music of Pete Seeger is not why I became political in itself, but the lyrics and the way he would sing would conjure a struggle and affect me so deeply that he was a factor in my getting active – and was absolutely key in my staying active. The inspiring and passionate music of struggle, from Union Maid, Talking Union and We Shall Overcome to the fun lighter ones, like Bourgeois Blues and Little Boxes have helped me feel the possibility of freedom on a deep level – “We Are Not Afraid … We Shall all be Free”
I have never stopped listening to Pete, and now play him for my baby. He might have died in body, but he lives on.