It is impossible to overstate the impact Pete Seeger had on my life.
It would have been about fifty years ago that a recording of his, an LP entitled “We Shall Overcome,” entered my life and, like a sudden explosion of clarity in my Lincoln, Nebraska bedroom, blew a gust of fresh air through my brain, clearing out the cobwebs of the Cold War, the Eisenhower Administration, and the crabbed, fusty old assumptions of the likes of John Foster Dulles.
I was sixteen that summer, a product of my time and place: anti-union, a states-right advocating opponent of the civil rights movement, a flat-out racist (I blush to recall some of the phrases I learned at my parents’ knee and would not dream of repeating them here.) I was also a proud Goldwater Republican.
And then I pulled “We Shall Overcome” out of its cover…
Looking back, I understand the importance of that moment, that time, that act, that year. It was 1964, the seam between the Beats, and the poetry of Ginsberg, the novels of Kerouac, and the counter-culture yet to come.
“We Shall Overcome” was a live album, recorded in concert at Carnegie Hall in 1962-3 and it was clearly dated, as irritatingly, so few LPs in my collection, which are now, in fact, lovingly preserved historical artifacts, were.
With Pete it was never just about the music, though of course the music was the warm, coursing, beating heart of the matter. It was also about the wonderful patter between the songs.
Pete brought us the news. Not the news of the Luce-inspired and Dulles-influenced slick magazines or the nightly cookie-cutter line ups of the Big Three television networks, but news from the picket lines and the front lines of the civil rights movement down in the Deep South. It was electrifying.
In that way, Pete was, truly, a troubadour. I don’t even need to look it up to guess that the word has the same root as the French verb trouver—to find. And what a find that album was to a skinny Nebraska kid.
I fell in love with it, playing that record over and over again in the privacy of the second floor bedroom of my mother’s house on Sheridan Boulevard in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“If you miss me at the back of the bus you can’t find me nowhere, oh no! Come on over to the front of the bus, I’ll be riding up there!/If you miss me in the Mississippi River you can’t find me nowhere, oh no!/ Come on over to the swimming pool I’ll be swimming right there.”
Pete Seeger always evoked what Abraham Lincoln described as “the better angels of our nature” and oh, but it was fine, Pete’s lyric tenor soaring in harmony above the melody line which, he trusted, the audience would always carry all on its own, and, on that night in New York City, it always did. And below the words, the lyric, pregnant with meaning, there was Pete’s twelve string guitar or frailing banjo impelling the thing along.
And then, when the music fell silent, there were the stories—finely-honed yet seemingly ad-libbed mini-essays really, about subjects as diverse as the Cuban nationalist poet Jose Marti (and what did any of us know of Cuba except Castro, Communism, and crisis over nuclear missiles?), Marilyn Monroe, and the burgeoning civil rights movement.
And for one night and for the length of one transcendent LP, we were all together, united by music, by the beauty of soaring harmonies, and by the deathless hope for a better tomorrow.
We Shall Overcome.