Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014)

The first music I got into was the Beatles’, followed soon after by Bob Dylan’s. It was an easy transition from Magical Mystery Tour to Highway 61 Revisited but when I picked up The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan that was a little different. This wasn’t rock music. It was called folk.

In the wonderful way that music has of unfolding over time, of revealing its influences, I followed the thread through Dylan to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Unlike the Beatles and Dylan this was not music I heard on the radio. The funny thing was, I recognized it anyway. I’d heard my mom singing a song while she did the laundry or a neighbor strumming his guitar on his porch. This wasn’t music made by rock stars, just folks having fun playing music.

One day I came across this album: Pete Seeger Sings American Ballads. Apparently there are people who can resist this kind of thing. I’m not one of them. My parents bought me a banjo for one of my teenage birthdays knowing full well the type of horrendous noise that would assault the tranquility of their home. They did it because they’re good folks. As soon as I got it I went to the library and withdrew this book:

It didn’t teach me how to play banjo. Only I can take the blame for that. What Pete Seeger was teaching was never banjo anyway. It wasn’t even music. It was how to live life as an honorable man. And how to have a hell of a good time doing it. That’s where the music came in. And Toshi.

They met in the 1930s and were together until she died last year, nine days shy of their 70th anniversary.

His moral compass was unerring because it always pointed toward love. His politics were honest and pure, motivated solely by compassion for all folks. There was no room for anger or hate in his politics. When rocks were thrown by an angry mob through the windows of a car carrying Pete, Toshi and his infant children, he used some of them to build the chimney of his home. When he was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee he told them, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” He was sentenced to a year in prison for contempt of Congress. An appeals court dismissed his indictment.


On Woody Guthrie’s guitar were written the words “This Machine Kills Fascists.” On Pete Seeger’s banjo were written the words “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender.”Both worthy goals, no doubt. But one just seems nicer about it. That was Pete Seeger: nice, gentle but unwavering destroyer of hate. Or as he put it, “Take it easy, but take it.”


It’s hard to think of him without a smile on his face and without getting one on mine. He was a credit to his race. The one he knew was the only race: the human race. All of us in his extended family just lost one of our best. Fortunately for those he left behind, he left a lot.

He included this cartoon in How to Play the 5 String Banjo:

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