Growing up, I never thought about whether or not I could sing. Everyone around me did, and I did too. My family sang before and after every meal; that was our way of saying grace. Whether or not I had a “good voice” was not something I ever thought about.
Imagine my surprise, when I found myself immersed in popular American culture some years later, and discovered that not having a good voice was considered a perfectly legitimate reason for not singing in a public setting.
Yes, this is about Pete Seeger. But it’s about more than him; it’s about a way of approaching music (hell, approaching life) that I think he both represented and practiced. It’s a practice that values participation over observation; and shared experiences over performances. Growing up surrounded by Pete’s music and ethos is why, I think, that I would much prefer to make music with others than on my own.
When I was probably about ten, I remember Pete visiting and, sitting underneath a gigantic pine tree, singing songs and telling stories. My most vivid memory from those hours is his rendition of “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” which he prefaced with a couple of stories about his good friend Woody, who came from the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. It was not the first time I’d heard that song, but it was the first time that I connected it with a real live person who came from a very particular place in time. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I think Pete always considered himself a link in a long chain of activist musicians, and valued that continuity over and above the celebration of individual genius. He was a craftsman and an interpreter, not a genius or an iconoclast. That’s another one of the things I appreciate most about him - our culture values originality, but anyone who’s closely studied anyone who claims to be totally original will always find the traces of someone else’s influence. We’re all only human, after all.