Each aspect of Pete Seeger's life — and his many ardent pursuits — shaped the mark he left on America. Pete Seeger played five strings, but only one banjo.
One could view Seeger’s leftist politics as disruptive of his career. Chart success in the early 1950s with his group The Weavers foundered on questions of Seeger’s political affiliations. “I love my country very dearly,” he said, “and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American.”
He was indicted for contempt of Congress and given jail time, a sentence that was later overturned. But his blacklisting derailed The Weavers. Despite achieving chart success and popularizing the old Gullah spiritual “Kumbaya,” The Weavers disappeared from the radio waves and concert halls. Seeger, though he faced a travel ban and was barred from television, was undaunted. He performed at summer camps and on the college circuit. (He left The Weavers when the group’s other three members agreed to perform a jingle for a cigarette commercial.) A dozen or so years later, Seeger wrote “Waist Deep In Big Muddy,” a Vietnam War protest song. CBS censored it from a 1967 performance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, but Seeger was allowed to return and play the song the following year. “I like to say I'm more conservative than Goldwater,” he pronounced in the early 1960s. “He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.”
Starting with his work for Alan Lomax, the great compiler of American vernacular music, Seeger became a tireless musical promoter. His television show, “Rainbow Quest,” was the best exemplar of the man’s unerring musical taste. The hour-long broadcast, which ran only on a low-power UHF channel between 1965 and 1966, featured an extraordinarily diverse range of acoustic musical expression. A sample set includes ragtime blues legends Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotten and Reverend Gary Davis, country greats Johnny Cash and June Carter, old-time picker and high lonesome singer Roscoe Holcomb, and contemporary artists like Donovan and Buffy St. Marie. Seeger, never one to resist inclusion, would often accompany his guests on banjo or guitar, when he wasn’t fixing them with his intense and admiring gaze.
In the still, small center of this spinning wheel of activity, Pete Seeger maintained a persistent belief in people and community. "The key to the future of the world,” he said, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.” If you watch a video of Pete Seeger in the coming days, it will probably show him performing to school children, or leading a sing-along, as he did in lieu of making a speech when inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In this sense — this participatory sense — he was more collectivist than his socialist politics might suggest. “Be wary of great leaders,” he said after marching with members of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. “Hope that there are many, many small leaders.” He had an ear, maybe the ear, for a simple, sturdy melody and socially potent lyric. He brought that to the people and they returned it to him, as during the hundreds of times Seeger’s crowd sang along to “Goodnight Irene.” Now we must continue to sing along with each other.
Pete Seeger’s banjo had five strings, all tuned to a certain tension and expressing a different tone, all plucked or strummed with the right amount of attack and release. They conveyed a message of gentle political activism, a marrow-deep love of playing an instrument, a sense of place and spirituality in nature, a knowledge and embrace of others’ musical expression and an abiding faith in people and progress. If that banjo — that machine that surrounded hate and forced it to surrender — is silent now, it will still be resonant for generations.