January 29, 2014
Pete Seeger, the singer, song-writer, social and environmental activist, has died at 94. His passing immediately brought to mind a short interview I had with him some 9 years ago, one that left me even more impressed with his gentle and affirmative approach to life.
Seeger was an enormously influential performer and activist who took on the establishment with guitar and, more often, banjo. He was the lefty radical who in the 1950s had the courage to stand up to the witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee, refusing to testify about his political or philosophical affiliations. He was indicted on charges of contempt of Congress, ultimately convicted and sentenced to a year in prison. But an appeals court dismissed the indictment. Thumbs up on that one. This guy was no criminal, just someone with a point of view out of tune with the times. No, on second thought, not out of tune with the times. He was a man grounded in what this country is all about, with the courage to stick to its fundamental principles of freedom of expression.
Sure he made mistakes, as we all do. He said he wished he had left the Communist Party sooner. But we need more people like Pete Seeger, not less. It is not as if capitalism is perfect, witness the Great Recession. We need people unafraid to challenge the status-quo, as Seeger unfailingly did. Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome,” became a mantra for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Another of his songs, the anti-war classic “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” deserves air time today. Perhaps it is time for a second folk revival, akin to the first folk revival Seeger so powerfully influenced.
Seeger was an environmentalist, too, working for years on behalf of the Hudson River.
On the 40th anniversary of the Selma civil rights march in 2005, Seeger appeared at a commemorative event in Gosen, Ct. I was there to cover the event and when it concluded I asked to briefly interview him. Without hesitation he agreed and we chatted for something like 15 minutes, maybe 20. Unlike so many other notables, he was gracious throughout, never seemed to be waiting for the moment to break away.
I’ve appended the story I filed about an hour later.
By Steve Grant
Courant Staff Writer
Goshen, Ct. – Folk singer Pete Seeger knew even then, 40 years ago today, that he was involved in a history making event, the Selma voting rights march.
On March 7, 1965, known today as Bloody Sunday, 600 people approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the start of a march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery to protest unfair voter registration practices. They were beaten, chased and sprayed with tear gas by Alabama state police and local deputies who drove the marchers back.
The protesters regrouped, got a court order and, on March 21, set out again, this time with more than 3,000 people marching, including celebrities and clergy. By the time they reached the capital on March 25, the number of marchers had swelled to 25,000.
Seeger, who appeared Sunday at the annual “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” Anniversary Celebration of the Beecher House Society, held at the Torrington Country Club here, said the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who led the march, had sent a telegram asking him to participate in that march.
“So we flew down. It was a slightly rainy three days,” he recalled. Participants slept in huge tents at night, walked a dozen or so miles a day.
“I remember walking, walking, walking,” Seeger said in an interview punctuated by his impromptu singing of a snippet from one of the protest songs the marchers sang as they walked, one aimed at Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace: “Ohhh, Ohhh Wallace, you never can jail us. Ohhh, Ohhh Wallace, your segregation is bound to fall.”
The march proved to be one of the pivotal events in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. President Lyndon B. Johnson later that year signed into the law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Seeger, 85, and a seminal figure in the mid-20th century revival of folk music, said he remains hopeful that one day all the world’s peoples will live in harmony. He said he sees evidence in little things every day, such as the growth of community gardens in cities, and the society’s plans for the Beecher House Center for the Study of Equal Rights, which will be erected near the University of Connecticut’s Torrington campus.
The Beecher House, which stood in Litchfield, has been dismantled and will be rebuilt as a historic site at the new center, which also will include an education building.
Society President Chandler Saint said Sunday that a quote from Seeger, long an activist for peace and civil rights, will be prominently displayed in the education building:
“This extraordinary problem which sooner or later the entire world has to face up to, how people of very different ethnic backgrounds can learn to live together on this Earth, doesn’t mean they have to live right on top of each other, but they have to treat each other decently, and that’s basically what I think Harriet Beecher Stowe’s great book is about.”
Chandler said the education center would be a place for students and scholars to research equal rights issues. The quote, he said, will serve as a rallying call.
“Every student, every scholar will be constantly reminded what the issue is and why they are there studying and what they need to do to carry this legacy forward,” he said.
Seeger’s association with Harriet Beecher Stowe is nearly lifelong. He said he lived in the Beecher House when it was a dorm for the Spring Hill School in Litchfield in the 1930s.
About 120 people were on hand for the celebration, which included folk music performances by Kim and Reggie Harris. Seeger, who lives along the Hudson River in New York and occasionally performs a song or two at a school or a gathering, sang “Take It From Dr. King,” a song he wrote after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“Don’t say it can’t be done, the battle’s just begun,” is one line.
He received a standing ovation.