With the passing of the legendary Pete Seeger, as well as the release of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, I’ve been revisiting folk music. So easy now. I don’t even have to pull out my vinyl and my turntable. (Do I still have a turntable somewhere in the garage?) I just type “Pete Seeger” into Songza and I’m treated to a collection of collections of curated folk songs, from the early Greenwich Village crowd (Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs) to later artists (Peter, Paul & Mary; John Denver; Janice Ian; early Paul Simon; Steve Goodman) to folk rock (Donovan, Tim Buckley, The Byrds) — all with Seeger ever-present.
The first time I heard Seeger sing was on a record my parents bought me to learn how to play the guitar. His lyric, friendly, easy tenor taught me songs as it taught me chords. I played the tracks over and over, trying to master each song. And I loved it.
Decades later, when my younger son was in pre-school we were lucky enough to have Pete come and sing for our kids. What a moment. Our children connecting with the very songs, the very man, who’d brought me so much joy.
I’m moved by the simplicity of the sound and by the power of folk songs as tools of change.
If I Had a Hammer helped create pride as workers battled for fair wages. Blowin’ in the Wind brought attention to the craziness of the nuclear arms race. We Shall Overcome motivated thousands to stay the course in the fight for civil rights. Masters of War and Turn, Turn, Turn became anthems that helped end the Vietnam War.
I wonder if we have songs that change lives and the course of history now? I think Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s Same Love might be one, helping the masses accept and even welcome gay rights. I’m sure there are others (let us know about them in the comments). But do people participate and spread the music? Or do they simply allow themselves to be sung to?
I recently read that the magic of folk music comes from the fact that the songs tell part of the story, and we tell the rest. Their simplicity makes them singable and memorable. Each singer has his or her own version. The songs change and evolve and grow and become part of the fabric of our society. And there’s real power in that.
Pete Seeger knew how to wield that power gracefully, affectionately. He knew a song that’s shared is far stronger than one that’s performed.
The last time I heard him sing was at his granddaughter’s wedding in the hills above Berkeley. His voice was a little thinner. He was a little tired. But the shared beauty of his songs is now part of us — part of our own power. And I hope we continue to pass it along.