Pete Seeger: A Lover’s Quarrel With America

The legendary Pete Seeger turns 90 today. Tonight he’ll play Madison Square Garden with Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Emmylou Harris and others. What a show that will be.

Seeger’s contribution to American music needs little rehearsing here. He’s the author of great songs like  “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” (which I’m hearing as I write), “If I Had a Hammer,”  and “Turn, Turn, Turn.”  I was privileged to spend a moment with him some years ago when he came  to Dallas to appear with the late Millard Lampell, who was his bandmate in the prewar Almanac Singers. (I had written a magazine piece about Lampell, like Seeger a proud leftist,  and the ironies of his spending his last years in famously conservative Dallas.)

That night, as he always does, Seeger struck what seems to me an ideal and healthy balance between fighting to change what is wrong about his country and loving what is best about it.   Nobody has done more than he has to point out America’s failures and betrayals and the  tragic gap between our highest ideals and our worst moments. (These lyrics provide one example.) And, unlike many of America’s most sulfuric critics, he has paid with his person, not just his rhetoric, suffering from the McCarthy Era blacklist. (Though he often joked  that John Birch Society picketers at his concerts actually helped him sell more tickets.) The late William F. Buckley labeled Seeger “the songbird of the Kremlin.”

And yet, Seeger is never bitter, never surrenders to hatred and bile.  “If I Had a Hammer”  could not have been written by someone who had given up on his country. He always says, like Springsteen says at his concerts, that we can do better, and then he goes out and does something to make things better. He has engaged in a long quarrel with America, but it’s a lover’s quarrel. He seems to agree with Bill Clinton, who said “there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right about America.”

 By the way, I wouldn’t be surprised if Seeger’s long life is due at least in part to his largely hopeful, uplifting spirit, and to the fact that he is constantly engaged in what he sees as valuable,  healing work. I doubt he lies awake many nights and castigates himself for not doing more to advance his causes. It’s worth asking what is a person’s essential fuel. What powers her? With Seeger it seems to be love and hard work, not scorn and venom.

I can’t say that I agree with everything Seeger has said and done in his long life. I don’t think his pacifism, as displayed in this song,  was the right response to Hitler’s aggression. But he has given far more to the world than he has taken, and he’s a man worth emulating.

 The link to the NPR piece about Seeger is here. Read a review of a new Seeger bio here. And if you want even more, New York magazine has a nice profile here.

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