|A mighty voice.|
Pete Seeger, 1919-2014
One of the voices that rang through my childhood is silent now. Pete Seeger died Monday.
I have mentioned him here before, joking that he made me a pint-sized communist. Actually, I suspect he only solidified my beliefs, nurtured by my parents, that universal kindness, tolerance, and justice are the bedrock of a life well-lived.
Seeger gave me a house of song—wonderful old folk songs, workers' and civil rights songs, anti-war songs, silly songs about monsters who didn't brush their teeth. So many stories lived in that house, and they captivated me. The also gave me much-needed courage.
I was a timid, even fearful child. I was scared of the dark, of the witches that lived under my bed, of loud noises, of adults I didn't know, of doing the wrong thing, of being laughed at. One of the things I loved about the protest songs Seeger sang was that they surrounded fear and broke its ranks through sheer force of will. Sing about it, Seeger taught me, and you will feel strong.
"We Shall Overcome" is the song I always think of when fear rides me. It was sung by people who had much to fear, yet who sang a song of such hope and grace that I can never hear it without being pierced by its fundamental faith in the power of our poor, wayward species to act for the right. In the version I'm embedding below, the version I grew up hearing, Seeger says, "The most important verse is the one they wrote down in Montgomery, Alabama. The young people there, they taught us all a lesson," and then he introduces the verse. "We are not afraid," he sings. "We are not afraid today."
Knowing that song, having it live in my heart, always hearing Seeger's distinctive tenor rise and soar into the chorus—"We shall overcome someday"—gave me what I needed to rule fear, to face it rather than submit to it; to live in a world that is as large as love rather than on the meager, stunted acreage of hate.
Thank you, Pete.