Pete Seeger and the American Soul

The folk singer, who has died at 94, had one defining feature: selflessness.
Pete Seeger performs at his 90th birthday celebration, which doubled as an all-star benefit for his environmental non-profit, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. (Reuters)

The singer-songwriter-folk hero Pete Seeger, who died Monday at the age of 94, always reminded me of Henry Fonda playing Tom Joad in John Steinbeck's immortal Grapes of Wrath. Not just Fonda's character, although surely there were resemblances, but in particular this scene and these lines from the great work:

This is precisely what Pete Seeger did with his entire extraordinary life. He wasn't just the Forrest Gump of his time. He wasn't just ubiquitous on the national scene by happenstance. He was purposely so—from the late 1930s until a few weeks ago he actively sought out the suffering he saw and tried to ease it. He did this for three quarters of a century.

You can say that you didn't like his music or complain that his embrace of Communism did not end soon enough (or did not end at all). You can say that that he should not have gone to Vietnam in 1972 or that he should have been more critical of Castro's Cuba. There are plenty of political criticisms you could make about the man, his life, and his legacy.

But what made his life remarkable weren't his political beliefs—right or wrong there are plenty of people with such beliefs.  It was the countless selfless acts he took in honor of those beliefs.  Here was a man who dedicated the entirety of his long life to profound social issues, a man unafraid to take controversial positions on the biggest issues of his age even when those positions were not popular or expedient.  "I believe that there are things worth saying," he would say and, of course, he was right.

So Pete Seeger was there in the 1950s singing about the perils of McCarthyism. When he was (naturally) brought in for questioning by the House Committee on Un-American Activities he did not plead the Fifth Amendment and refuse to answer questions. Instead, courageously, he denounced the Committee's efforts to question him about his political and religious beliefs. For this he was convicted and blacklisted from television and radio.

And Pete Seeger was there during the civil rights movement, on the march from Selma to Montgomery, for example, or in Mississippi singing for the Freedom Riders—singing for Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman—during the fateful summer of 1964. Here's a photo of him in Meridien, singing to the kids who would help change a nation (and, in some cases, lose their lives). 

And Pete Seeger was there during the Vietnam War, singing about the need to bring American troops home. When CBS infamously censored his rendition of "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" in 1967 he waited and came back one year later and sang the song on television. Forty years later, the censors gone, he was there singing protest songs about the Iraq War.

His critics often called Pete Seeger anti-American. I think the opposite was true. I think he loved America so much that he was particularly offended and disappointed when it strayed, as it so often has, from the noble ideals upon which it was founded. I don't think that feeling, or the protests it engendered, were anti-American. I think they were wholly, unabashedly American.

In that passage from "Grapes of Wrath," Steinbeck wrote (and Fonda spoke) these words:  "A fellow ain't got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody." I think that's what Pete Seeger was. He was the little piece of the big American soul. And for 75 years he spoke on behalf of the souls of tens of millions of Americans who were too scared, or too busy, or too tired to speak out against the injustices they saw.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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