I remember the first time I heard Pete Seeger. I was a young child, and he appeared on the TeeVee. Maybe it was Ed Sullivan. Maybe it was Hullabaloo. Knowing Pete Seeger, it was likely on the news at a protest.
He turned ninety this weekend.
Pete Seeger was one of the pioneers of the protest-folk music movement. Raised by a father who was a music professor at UC Berkeley, Seeger counted among his influences Lincoln Steffens, a muckraking journalist who worked tirelessly to cover corruptions of power in America, and also was one of the first ardent American socialists.
You've heard Seeger's music all your life: "If I Had A Hammer," "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" and "Turn, Turn, Turn" (still the only song ever lifted whole from the Bible).
Seeger sees injustice, and speaks out. He sees the tragedy of environmental degradation, and speaks out. He sees criminality from those in power, and speaks out.
And he sees dischord and strives for unity. His concerts have always featured bounties of sing-alongs, creating one voice out of many.
The list of people he has influenced is immeasurable, spanning American music from Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to Bruce Springsteen, Rage Against The Machine and Ani DeFranco.
I learned guitar playing his songs. I think I can still, 35 years after setting mine down, play "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" from memory.
I say all this, because I think it's important to note a shift in American culture. With the occasional exception (Springsteen, for one), no artist today has the power that a simple man with a banjo had to shape public opinion.
Sure, you had Bob Geldof and Band-Aid. That was a one-off, tho, a moment in time when the stars aligned and the world came together to unite against a famine in a terrible cauldron of pain and suffering.
And other artists have come together regularly to promote and publicize causes, like Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and the rest for Farm Aid.
Seeger, as well as Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and that whole gang or even John Lennon later in life, these folks could get up nightly and raise the banners of activism, and people were persuaded and went out and worked for a cause.
We don't have that attention span any longer, and I mourn a little the loss of that.