What can really be said? It’s as if a thief arrived in the night and stole one of the heads from Mount Rushmore.
Pete Seeger died Tuesday at age 94 after a career spent speaking truth to power via the deepest strains of American song. Among Seeger’s many achievements we can count a crowning one: Seeger birthed the notion of “protest music” for the last century, and became a touchstone for the explosion of topical song that hit a peak in the latter part of the 1960s.
Seeger’s death is not surprising or tragic in the conventional sense – he lived a long and robust life and was involved in the music he so loved until his final days. However, his passing allows us a moment to pause and reflect on the state of the legacy he leaves behind.
Sadly, for the most part, the compulsion Seeger felt so deeply – to employ music as a motivating force in movements for social, political and philosophical change in American life – is not something that is echoed in the mainstream with much regularity these days. Seeger sang “We Shall Overcome,” but the majority of popular music in the present tense is much more concerned with “I shall overcome” – a narcissism reigns supreme, as anthems of self-empowerment, personal ego gratification, and “wah wah wah, my relationship this and that” have replaced the Seeger ethic of working toward the eradication of corporate elitism, of speaking up for the have-nots, and of employing song as a vehicle for enlightenment.
Seeger was routinely bashed and battered by the far right wing of American political thought throughout his career, and he never shied away from the fight. He consistently exhibited the courage of his convictions, most famously, when subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955.
“I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs,” Seeger testified. “I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under compulsion such as this.”
In 1957, Seeger was indicted on 10 counts of contempt of Congress, was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison, but ultimately served no time, after an appeals court found the indictment faulty.
That’s right. Seeger was sentenced to prison for singing songs. Let that marinate for a moment.
Can we imagine this happening today? In America, at least, there is no need for anyone to be arrested for singing songs.
At the time Seeger went before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the people leading it and seeking to rule this country lived in visceral fear of the power of rebellious songs, of the youth who rallied around such songs, and the free-thinkers who performed these songs and wrote contemporary updates of them.
Today, pop stars by and large don’t criticize the system, because they’ve completely sold out to it. Rappers are entrepreneurs; songwriters in the country music idiom regularly shill for thinly veiled hate-mongers; and rock bands charge exorbitant ticket prices that effectively make it very difficult for common working people to afford to attend their concerts. Popular music no longer “rails against the man,” because popular music actually is the man.
There are exceptions. You can hear Seeger and observe his ethic writ large in the work of American songwriters like Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder. You can observe his righteous fortitude and his refusal to sell out his principals in the actions of jailed Russian punk act Pussy Riot. You felt Seeger when the Dixie Chicks stood up for their right to say what they wanted to say about then-President George W. Bush, the “rules” of country music be damned. You might catch his vibe in a gathering at a nondenominational church, where the assembled join hands and sing “We Shall Overcome” in unabashed idealistic celebration. Seeger’s footprint was all over the Occupy Wall Street movement, where pages from his songbook became the soundtrack of the movement.
Springsteen, of course, is the highest-profile heir to Seeger’s legacy. In the mainstream of popular music, he is the only artist who consistently writes songs that address social, political and philosophical issues in the language of protest and in the spirit of bearing witness.
Happily, Springsteen attracts a massive, multigenerational audience to his concerts. We can only hope that some young person at one of those concerts is moved enough to grab the torch and run with it.