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O My America: Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

January 28, 2014
BanjoPete has left us. He died at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York on Monday evening. For years I’ve been listening to his gorgeous song, “To My Old Brown Earth,” and wondering if and when it would be played at his funeral. You can hear it by clicking the link below. To My Old Brown Earth My first experience of thrilling to live music was attending the 1962 Weavers at Carnegie Hall reunion concert. I was 11. The Beatles would arrive not long after and capture my aesthetic sensibility for the rest of my life, but Pete and the Weavers never went into exile for me. I would listen to him in his amazing productivity over the years and always, always be reminded of the fundamental values of international solidarity, love, humor, joy, justice, and faith in human potential that have informed and inspired my life — no matter how often I’ve wanted to retreat from them into a kind of uninspired safety. Pete was one of the few great souls, and one of the greatest songwriters, of our lives. My claim on him was slight. He was a Life Subscriber to Jewish Currents. He performed at our long-time editor Morris U. Schappes’ 70th and 75th birthdays three decades back. He encouraged me with notes and drawings and small contributions when I became editor of the magazine in 2002. And over the past few years, we had a few precious phone conversations, in which he invariably told me about his optimism that human beings would work it out — eventually. Now we’ll have to work it out without having Pete to lead us in a sing-along. That makes it much, much harder. I thank him for the Hudson River. I thank him for “Wimoweh” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “We Shall Overcome,” and “Sailing Down My Golden River,” and dozens of other unforgettable songs that he either wrote or popularized and then used as organizing tools. I thank him for teaching my generation how to play the 5-string banjo and the 12-string guitar. I thank him for enduring everything from the blacklist to his unwelcome fame with equanimity and undaunted humanity. I thank him for touching my political and musical and social soul over and over and over again. Pete Seeger, of blessed, blessed memory.