“Loved him from earliest childhood, when he would play children's concerts in union halls in Detroit (while he was blacklisted in the 1950s), and my mother brought me to hear him, and I would sing along. And my dad would tune in to his CBC radio show from Windsor so I could hear it. Pete was banned from American airwaves.”
This is my mother’s Facebook status update from January 28, 2014. When I awoke and read it, I knew right away: Pete Seeger was dead.
How is it that a man who hosted warm-and-fuzzy children’s sing-along concerts and penned countless Boy Scout campfire songs, could also be blacklisted from American radio and television? How could such a sweet-voiced minstrel be also such a great threat to politicians and leaders?
Because a man who can use music to inspire, unite, rouse and mobilize a people, has a completely different kind of power than those who carry the keys to nuclear arms.
Unlike my mother, I did not grow up during the civil rights movement or the war in Vietnam. I did not experience the transformative power of Pete’s protest-songs, or attend children’s concerts in Detroit’s union halls. But I do experience this very powerful force – that which made Seeger’s music banned for so many years – in the experiences I have in my work as a music therapist in oncology and palliative care.
Today at work, a doctor on the oncology unit stopped to say hi, and said, “music therapy…so valuable for the patients!” I smiled and said, “yes, music is very powerful. And today’s a sad day, what with Pete Seeger and all.” The doc and I began chatting about what a powerful presence Seeger was in the world. We reflected on how the same power that can mobilize a nation to protest a war, can help bring grace and meaning to a family in the final hours of a patient’s life.
One of Pete’s most magical qualities was his ability to get a huge group of people singing. In a culture where so many people are convinced that they ‘can’t sing,’ to get a group of strangers singing together is quite an accomplishment. And singing unleashes something, which is perhaps why it is also so feared. Singing unleashes joy. Connection. Humanity. And that’s the stuff that topples oppressive regimes, that breaks down walls of tyranny or injustice. That’s the stuff that gets people banned from the radio.
It is chilling to think about the warmth and simplicity of Seeger’s music alongside the deep politics of it. His life serves as an example of how music brings people together in their shared humanity. Be it in a crowded hospital room or a crowded union hall, the simplest of music can unite us in a deeper sacredness. I have carried the sense in my heart today that a bright light in the world is gone. Seeger - like John Lennon, like Mandela, like the artists and musicians of the Terezin concentration camp – was a true warrior of peace.