I used to be a folksinger . . . through high school and college I played guitar and sang the songs of Tom Paxton and Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and Judy Collins and Pete Seeger. I saw all of them perform live and they all moved me and inspired me, but there was something unique and authentic about Pete Seeger.
His death this week brought on a moment of sadness for me, although I hadn't thought about him for quite a long time, his music, his ethos, his example constituted one of the building blocks of who I am today.
Many of us know his songs . . . as sung by him or by other artists: "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "This Little Light of Mine," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Rambling Man," "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," "If I Had a Hammer." Those were all in my coffeehouse repertoire back in the day. The values expressed in those songs . . . humility, patience, compassion, hope, and the imperative to speak out against the opposite of those values . . . spoke to me as a teenager in the 60s and a college student in the early 70s (yes, I'm dating myself . . . do the math if you must).
One of Seeger's many gifts to me was his appreciation of all sorts of ethnic folk music. He sang Irish folk melodies, Appalachian songs . . . and even Yiddish and Hebrew folk melodies. His expansive appreciation of music from many cultures and many ethnicities gave me "permission" to delve into the world of Jewish music even as I built up my coffeehouse-protest-song-folk-ballad repertoire.
In a remembrance of Pete Seeger by Arlo Guthrie this week, Guthrie wrote about one of Seeger's most compelling qualities:
Sitting in the audience at a Pete Seeger concert, I felt that charisma . . . we all wanted to sing with him, to express the emotions and values of those songs with him. There was nothing flashy about Pete Seeger on a stage. He spoke quietly. Told gentle jokes and stories. Dressed simply. I actually remember him wearing that sweater you see in the photograph above. All of that added up to an undeniable, compelling presence that brought out the best in us.
Pete Seeger was not a flower child . . . he was a man of simple tastes and deep convictions who showed us that speaking truth to power with humility and perseverance was the dignified way to protest: the environment, the Vietnam War, prejudice were all causes Seeger stood up for.
I have found no evidence that Pete Seeger was familiar with the theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel, but Seeger's response to a question about his own belief and faith links these two great sages:
Seeger speaks of awe, I think . . . .
Pete Seeger was an iconic figure for America: he taught us to embrace our culture and our values and he taught us that our voices are essential, raised in song or prose, to the endeavor of living in a value-inspired society.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.