Go tell all the little children…
[on our] one earth…give it one more try,
to show [our] Rainbow race, it’s too soon to die.
–Pete Seeger “Rainbow Race”
May 3rd marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of legendary folk singer, songwriter, public citizen/educator, and activist for social justice, peace, worker rights, and environmental sanity, Pete Seeger.
Pete wrote “Rainbow Race” fifty years ago as a love song to the earth and a warning to humanity that the future is being killed by systems that place profits over people and the rest of nature. That stark reality is now all too clear as the earth-life-disaster-linked-to-climate-disruption rages on across the planet.
Pete lived a long and fruitful life (94 years) that included considerable time engaging people in communal singing that uplifted the spirit, encouraged social responsibility, and helped folks understand and overcome their troubles. Pete said his religion is “participation.” “If there is a human race still here in a hundred years,” he said, “[not only will…] women save the day…[but] people will know the importance of participating, and not just being spectators.”
Pete, possessed of a courageous humility, and profoundly influenced by Woody Guthrie, in turn influenced generations of “people’s music” singers including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bernice Johnson, Judy Collins, Bruce Springsteen, Richie Havens, Tom Morello, and many more.
Pete had great confidence and great doubts. It is that contradiction that keeps us awake, alive, attuned and alert, as Bruce Springsteen has suggested. In other words, Pete was hopeful: he knew there were possibilities that we could, through collective participation and struggle, build a better world, but there are no guarantees that even our best efforts will succeed. Yet, Pete continued, as we must.
Today, “Pete Seeger Lives!” in what John Steinbeck called “the American spirit of resistance” to tyranny and authoritarianism.
Pete lives in the hearts and minds of all who care about people, a decent society, and a livable world; all who struggle for social justice, substantive freedom, individual rights, and participatory democracy; and all who resist tyrants and racists, respect human dignity and appreciate human diversity while recognizing our common humanity.
Pete lives in those working to overcome racism, classism, sexism, and imperialism; and those who believe that sharing is better than exploiting; kindness is better than callousness, cooperation is better than domination; egalitarianism is better than authoritarianism; and that democracy is a human value.
Pete lives in all who love to sing songs, dance across a room, recite poems, create art, and laugh out loud; all who believe that love can conquer hate, peace can vanquish war, and solidarity can defeat systems that alienate and atomize.
Pete lives in our spirit of human decency, compassion, and conviviality; in all who appreciate modest nobility, the spirit of generosity, the genius of simplicity, and the willingness to change while remaining rooted in fundamentally loving and caring principles.
Pete lives in all who revel in the beauty of a river flowing, a sun rising, a flower blooming, a garden growing, a butterfly floating, an ocean roaring; in all who hold onto defiant optimism and energized hope.
And Pete lives on in all who maintain a deep faith in the will and ability of people to work together to resist and overcome the horrors of iniquitous institutions and to construct new social structures through which all can live fulfilling, joyful, and meaningful lives; he lives in all who think humanity and nature are more important than commodities and profits.
Pete Seeger was loved by people across the world because Pete actively loved people across the world. He worked to create a world in which it is not idiotic to love and, in the words of Richard Levins, “not idiotic to be kind.” It seems clear that for Pete love meant finding joy, fulfillment, and happiness in being the source of joy, fulfillment, and happiness of others. Love for Pete meant creating the conditions through which others can creatively flourish while they do the same for you – call it “social love.”
For more than 75 years Pete stayed true to struggles against exploitation and oppression and for a substantively free, equal, and democratic society (for that, he was blacklisted for seventeen years “officially” and arguably nine more “unofficially”). This spirit was reflected in Pete’s commitment to communal singing where the creative participation of each nurtures and nourishes the flourishing of all, and vice versa.
Pete said “great acts of love are rooted in great anger.” Pete’s righteous anger against systemic injustice and violence was profoundly rooted in deep and active love for the victims of injustice and violence.
Pete said he’d only be a musician if music could bring peace. Music alone will not bring peace; it will not overcome institutions grounded in exploitation, violence and greed; it will not overcome the root causes of the intensifying earth-life-disasters-linked-to-climate-disruption, it will not alone build a world liberated from domination, tyranny and subjugation, but as Pete demonstrated it can play a crucial, critical, and nurturing role.
Because music alone cannot bring peace and social justice, Pete Seeger participated in, contributed to, and learned from every major progressive social cause and movement from the 1930s up to his death in 2014, including labor movements, civil rights movements, women’s movements, anti-war movements, anti-nuke movements, environmental justice movements, etc. We can be sure that Pete would be supporting and learning from the international youth uprisings today embodied in The Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, Student Strike 4 Climate, etc.
Pete, following Brecht, believed, music can hold up honest mirrors to current realities; open windows into new and better realities, and it can provide us with hammers with which to build from where we are to where we wish to be.
Pete said that some music can help us escape our troubles; other music can help us understand our troubles; the best music can help us do something to overcome our troubles. Pete embodied that humanizing and revolutionary spirit dedicated to overcoming our troubles.
Pete said he wanted to die with a hammer in his hands. Pete lives in all those willing to pick up a hammer to build the possible better world we so urgently need.
When Pete died, many people said: “The world is a better place because Pete Seeger lived.”
Let us work to keep Pete’s loving, creative and revolutionary spirit alive and flourishing in all of us…let all of us work to make the world a better place…given the perils, challenges and crises we face on our shared “one earth,” our future depends on it.
doug morris, guitarist and singer of “people’s songs,” teaches critical pedagogy at West Chester University, West Chester, PA. email@example.com