The E Street Band played “We Shall Overcome” in Cape Town, South Africa last night, and it was a tearjerker. Pete Seeger was 94 years old and lived a remarkable life. There’s a temptation to go, “Do not weep for Pete Seeger.” But I did weep for him, because we could use 94 more years of a guy like that.
Pete was a friendly acquaintance of mine. I had the opportunity to duet with him on his last record on a song called “A More Perfect Union.” Being able to stand on stage with him at the Newport Folk Festival singing “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land is Your Land” are moments now that I will treasure forever.
But my favorite Pete Seeger moment in history is when he was booked on the Smothers Brothers Show. The network initially canceled his performance because of his political affiliations. But the Smothers Brothers stood up for him. Months later, they had him on to play “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Check it out on YouTube: it is as angry as any Rage Against the Machine song. With poetic, razor-like precision, he vivisects the cruel foolishness of the Vietnam War – all with one banjo and one vision for a better world that he was willing to put himself on the line for. It’s something that I return to for inspiration in my own work.
He sort of became this kindly grandfather figure of Sixties feel-good nonviolence in popular culture, but Pete Seeger was a threat. He always declared himself a communist with a lower-case “c.” He was this sort of gentle grandfather with a backbone of steel who was going to put a chokehold on the powers that be until they relented. That guy was no joke. He was a hardcore badass when he stood up to House Un-American Activities Committee, saying, “How dare you question my Americanism because I play music for people whose politics are different than yours?” Yet he played lovely, gentle songs at countless pre-schools for toddlers. He was a unique, spectacular combination of things I doubt we’ll ever see again.
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In 2011, around midnight, Pete led a non-police sanctioned Occupy Wall Street march for two miles across Manhattan. You couldn’t hold him down if he was walking with two canes! Pete never lost the fire, and wherever there were voices raised, however few or many, Pete was always willing to lend his voice, his banjo, and his spirit to the struggle for a more just planet.
He’s maybe a more forgiving soul than I am, and I hope to learn from him to have less anger and more heart. Look at what’s written on Woody Guthrie’s guitar and Pete Seeger’s banjo. Woody’s guitar says, “This machine kills fascists.” Pete Seeger’s says, “This machine surrounds hatred and forces it to surrender.” That’s a great soul.
At our first show in Cape Town, the E Street Band played “We Are Alive,” a great song off Wrecking Ball. Bruce references New England railroad workers, and people in United States history that perished in the struggle for a better world and how their voices stand shoulder to shoulder with the struggles of today. He replaced those folks with the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and the miners that were killed a couple of years ago in the labor dispute here. Whether it’s Pete Seeger standing in from HUAC committee in 1960 or a Bruce Springsteen song in 2014, its important to keep the pressure on. It encouraged me to re-double my efforts in that regard. I think that there are artists of different genres whose calling is to use their art to hope to affect and better the human condition – whether it’s System of a Down, or Rage Against the Machine, or Public Enemy, or the Clash, Bruce Springsteen, or Pete Seeger. It’s a group that I’m proud to be counted among.
The bad news is that Pete Seeger’s dead. The good news is that there’s going to be one spectacular hootenanny going on in heaven when Guthrie and Lead Belly reunite with their bro Pete Seeger.