My hero, the folksinger and activist Pete Seeger, died yesterday at the age of 94. Here’s an example of his subversive attraction: I first learned his songs at Girl Scout camp, when I was 10. Songs about peace, about civil rights, about the dignity of labor. Songs written and sung by a man who just a short time before had been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and been banned from performing in public. Fifth grade girls, sitting around a campfire at Camp Tohikanee in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, after a long day of hiking and making lanyards and cleaning latrines (yuck), a counselor with a guitar and three chords teaching us “We Shall Overcome,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” The Girl Scout motto is “be prepared.” I was prepared for a life of activism.
His songs got into my bones, flowed through my veins. They let me learn and express ideas for which I did not yet have my own words. Pete’s words became my words, his rhythms became by rhythms, I sang his tune and taught it to others. I did, and so did millions of others. He changed the my world, your world, the whole world.
Musician David LaMotte recalled a concert in New York, where the audience chairs were aligned in rigid rows, as concert seats tend to be. Pete, then 90, without saying a word, started rearranging them into a more intimate circle. Hundreds of chairs. David reflected:
He just started moving chairs. Naturally, people who were there looked at each other and said “Maybe we should help Pete.” Before long, everyone had pitched in and the room was reset. It was more welcoming and spoke more of community than it had before. Ever the organizer, Pete showed us how it is done: Do the work. Show people what it looks like, then welcome other people into the work when they show up. Gandhi didn’t say “Demand the change.” He said “Be the change.” Pete lived that. From all I can tell, he lived it for nine decades (Read David’s entire essay here)
Yes! Magazine interviewed Pete a few years ago and he reflected on his theory of social change:
Well, it’s been my belief that learning how to do something in your hometown is the most important thing. . . . If there’s a world here in a hundred years, it’s going to be saved by tens of millions of little things. The powers-that-be can break up any big thing they want. They can corrupt it or co-opt it from the inside, or they can attack it from the outside. But what are they going to do about 10 million little things? They break up two of them, and three more like them spring up! (read the entire interview in Yes! Magazine)
Pete often sang David Mallett’s “Garden Song”: Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow . . . ” That’s how change happens, inch by inch, row by row, in a specific place by the hard work — pulling weeds, picking stones — of each one of us. How do we grow compassion? Inch by inch, row by row, song by song. Pete and re-Pete the formula.