When I heard that Pete Seeger had died, I felt like I’d lost an era of my own political life. In the mid-1970s, I was part of a large audience in Minneapolis that fell in love with the singer and his songs. We all know that the Hudson River would have died had Pete not organized, at first with a tiny group of like-minded New Yorkers, and unrelentingly kept on organizing until the river was cleaned up and reborn.
While I never heard him in person again, I had many recordings and knew all the words to many of his emblematic songs. My own favorite is “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore, Halleluia,” a call to activists to stop doing whatever it is we are doing and focus on the injustices and horrors all around us. News of Seeger’s death came at the same time that my church lesson from the Gospels reminded me of Jesus’ earliest recruitment of apostles. His first two were Matthew and his brother, simple fishermen who were in their boats when Jesus passed by them. He asked them to row their boat to the shore, lay down their fishing gear, and follow him into a radical movement for justice and love. Since the song Pete sang included the sacred “halleluia,” and since he often talked about his grounding in the gospel tradition in African American churches, I am convinced that he was thinking of that moment in time when he made up his words that we all responded to so fully.
So we won’t hear any more live recordings of this man of good works, but I and thousands of others will hold him in our hearts as a model for how to live in a deeply flawed world without either falling into cynical despair or being mesmerized by fame and fortune. As he must have felt sad over so many of his fellow travelers who did become stunned and then damaged by the lime-light, Pete Seeger just kept on putting one foot in front of the other, telling truth to whatever power base he felt needed to hear it, staying centered in his fundamental belief in inclusivity–“This land is my land, this land is your land….”