Once again, music has lost a great hero. Folk artist and activist Pete Seeger passed away at age 94, leaving many of us confused and heartbroken. For some reason, Seeger just seemed like the type of guy who was going to live forever.
I’m guessing that’s because his legacy is so powerful that he kind of is going to live forever. At least, I hope so.
94 years is a lot of time to do and say awesome stuff. Pete Seeger definitely used his time on this earth to teach us some important lessons, especially when it comes to the power of music. Although it would take hours and hours to recount all the wonderful things Seeger passed on about how to do music (and life) right, here are 7 highlights:
– – –
1. Music is for everyone (Even that guy. And that guy.)
Seeger’s far left politics and activism made him a hero to many…and a political nemesis to others. But no matter who you were, no matter what the issue of the day, one thing always held true–Pete Seeger would play a song for you.
Pete Seeger used his voice and music to speak out about important issues and pursue a better country and world for everyone. That’s admirable enough. But it’s important to remember that he didn’t just play battle cries for people who agreed with him. He played music for everyone, about everyone, and (most importantly) with everyone. That’s how he instigated change. That’s how he became a folk hero. And that’s something we can all learn from.
2. Music is more than entertainment.
People make music for all kinds of reasons. For Pete Seeger, music was a powerful tool for communication and conversation. It was a way to reach people…and to have them reach right back. Seeger shared this philosophy in an interview upon his induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame:
That’s been my main life’s work – to show that music is not mere entertainment…The only hope for the world is to realize the danger we’re in and start communicating with each other. Music is one of the most powerful means of communication.
Right on, Seeger. Right on.
3. Music, and life, are participatory sports.
No one was a spectator in Pete Seeger’s eyes. When music played, you sang along. You stamped your feet. You cared about what you were saying.
In the 2007 documentary “The Power of Song,” Bob Dylan himself spoke to Seeger’s knack for getting people involved in the musical experience:
Pete Seeger, he had this amazing ability to look at a group of people and to make them all sing parts of a song. And he would make an orchestration out of the whole song, with everybody in the audience singing. Whether you wanted to or not, you would find yourself singing a part. It would be beautiful.
And that whole sing, move, care, participate thing? That applied to more than just Seeger’s concerts. It was a lifestyle…and a powerful one.
I’ve never sung anywhere without giving the people listening to me a chance to join in – as a kid, as a lefty, as a man touring the U.S.A. and the world, as an oldster. I guess it’s kind of a religion with me. Participation. That’s what’s going to save the human race.
– Pete Seeger
4. (Sound)check yourself before you wreck yourself.
Speaking of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger goes way back with the folk singer…back to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, to be exact. There’s an urban myth that during Dylan’s set, Seeger despised the electric folk sound so much that he threatened to cut Dylan’s chords with a hatchet. In reality, though, Seeger was a huge Dylan fan. He was just riled up that the bad speaker quality was distorting Dylan’s powerful lyrics.
I ran over to the sound man and said, “Fix the sound so you can understand him!” and they hollered back “No, this is the way they want it!” I don’t know who “they” was, but I was so mad I said “Damn, if I had an axe I would cut the cable right now.”
5. Music can change the world.
Earlier this year, Pete Seeger tweeted something that stuck with me big time:
I think this tweet is particularly meaningful because Seeger is a man who did play the right song at the right moment, and it did change history.
Three words: We Shall Overcome.
Pete Seeger didn’t create change alone. He didn’t do anything alone. He did it in community with activists, artists, listeners, talkers, people. He used music as a tool to unite, comfort, and inform people from all walks of life. Seeger taught us the powerful impact of being in the right place, at the right time, with right people and the right song.
Also: Yes, Pete Seeger had Twitter at age 94. Because he’s kinda the coolest, that’s why.
Seeger was determined to have everybody, everybody sing along. Watching Pete Seeger perform live was a community experience, a living example of how many small voices are just as powerful as one big voice. Seeger showed us that music is something that is most meaningful when we can create and share it together, a point he made even clearer by saying awesome things like this:
Seriously. New desktop background right there.
7. Be humble, and be inspired.
Pete Seeger was a constant advocate for learning by doing. He paid attention to the art and people around him. He learned from others, understood their music, and remained humble to the talent around him.
Seeger referred to Woody Guthrie as “the single biggest part of my education.” He even wrote this message on his banjo (a similar gesture to Guthrie’s famous guitar with the words “This Machine Kills Fascists)”:
In addition to being openly inspired by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger was always incredibly quick to list off his biggest inspirations and admirations. He often traveled around listening to rural musicians and folk sounds. He even helped Alan Lomax organize the Archive of American Folk Song early in his career. He was an active student of music, art, and life just as much as he was a teacher.
Seeger was not a competitive musician, and he was not afraid to be inspired. He was constantly learning from the music around him, and forging relationships with artists of all kinds. That’s something any musician should be proud to say.
– – –
Okay, let me get personal with you for a second:
Last year, I packed up and moved from Ottawa to Washington DC with nothing but a suitcase and a guitar (which is weird, because I didn’t even play the guitar.). I was doing a semester-long internship at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, a record label whose history and livelihood is deeply tied to Pete Seeger.
When I arrived in DC, there were a lot of things I was scared to try. Like the guitar. Like being vulnerable and accountable in a group of people I super-duper respected. Like following the legacy of a guy like Pete Seeger. Like this whole “learning by doing” thing.
But then I started listening. I started singing along. I started learning chords and learning names. I wrote posts and abstracts for Folkways; then I went home and wrote songs with those four chords I knew. And it changed my life.
Doing music and doing life in a Pete Seeger way isn’t hard, really. Folkways still does it everyday. Back in Ottawa, I was inspired to join the E.L.E Fest team because they work hard to do it, too. To be radically participatory and collaborative. To care what other people have to say (and play, and sing).
Pete Seeger showed people around the world how to approach our sounds and our lives like a goofy, musical, meaningful jam session.
So let’s jam.