Pete Seeger Enters 9th Decade As An Activist

Tao Rodriguez-Seeger was halfway through Friday night’s march down Broadway to support the Occupy Wall Street movement, a guitar strapped over his shoulder and his grandfather Pete Seeger at his side. Suddenly a New York City police officer stepped from the crowd and grabbed his elbow.

“Are you Tao Seeger?” the officer asked tersely. “Was this your idea? Did you think of this?”

Rodriguez-Seeger, a New Orleans-based musician, was certain arrest was imminent. The officer reached for his hand and he readied for the cuffs. Then something unexpected happened.

“He shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you, thank you. This is beautiful,’” Rodriguez-Seeger said. “That really did it for me. The cops recognized what we were about.”

Photo: AP Photo
Sings before a crowd of nearly a thousand demonstrators sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street protests.

That moment affirmed the message that his grandfather has preached tirelessly across nine decades. The causes and movements have changed from time to time over 75 years, but his message has always been the same: Song is the key to understanding and change.

“Music does something to you,” Rodriguez-Seeger said. “It can cross rivers of meaning that entire books can’t get across. … You take any one of Bob Dylan’s songs and you get to the heart of the matter where it took Homer volumes and volumes of books to get to the same point.”

Today, Pete Seeger is approaching the far end of a life lived walking hand in hand with American history, often at odds with the government that runs things. It failed to shut him up. The courts had no chance. Changing tastes and values? Never. Even time seems to have taken a step back in deference to the musical rabble-rouser’s resolve and determination.

This time around, the 92-year-old Seeger was carried along by two canes, not the sound of his banjo. But his presence, in a crowd of nearly 1,000 with guitar players and chanting sign-holders and police swirling around, gave the new protest movement something it seemed to lack over the last month.

A momentary clarity, longtime friend Guy Davis thinks. A purpose. A direction.

“It’s his humanity,” Davis said.

Seeger’s voice first rose in the 1930s against Hitler. He met Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax and Lead Belly, and began to advocate for migrant workers and miners in the 1940s. He stared down Sen. Joseph McCarthy and endured a blacklisting he simply shrugged away. In middle age, he was a key figure in the folk revival that produced Dylan and, later, the protests that helped shape modern America.

Photo: AP Photo
Former Vice President and 1948 Progressive Party presidential candidate, Henry A. Wallace listens to Pete Seeger.

Seeger still takes delight in lending his presence to important things, even if his voice doesn’t carry like it used to. He found himself attracted to the studied inorganization of the Wall Street protesters.

“Be wary of great leaders,” he said Sunday in a phone interview full of songs and stories when asked what he identifies with in the Occupy Wall Street message. “Hope that there are many, many small leaders.”

Other than the canes and snowy beard, Seeger hasn’t changed much since he began singing out against fascism in the mid-1930s after dropping out of Harvard in frustration.

“The sociology professor said, ‘Don’t think that you can change the world. The only thing you can do is study it,’” Seeger said. “… But this was 1937 and Hitler had taken power. He was murdering people and was ready to go to war.”

You could say Seeger inherited his activism. His great-great grandfather came to America seeking self-determination after reading the Declaration of Independence. His great-grandfather was an abolitionist. His father was a socialist who spoke out against World War I.

His views didn’t always make him popular. He was a member of the Communist Party, something he later apologized for. He was initially for staying out of World War II, but changed his mind when Hitler broke his nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union. He also spoke out against the war in Vietnam, a move that got him censored on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and visited North Vietnam in 1972.

Seeger’s influence is incalculable, however. He’s the rare artist whose music and message transcends time, speaking to his children and their children and on and on.

The son of a musicologist and a violinist, he began leading others in song at 8 and was introduced to protest music around 12. Early on, he saw beauty and possibility in traditional songs often considered regional hokum or race records unfit for an upstanding white audience.

His message found an eager audience in the young generation of kids who would go on to define rock ‘n’ roll, changing American and world culture in myriad ways. He introduced Martin Luther King Jr. to “We Shall Overcome.” In his hands, songs like “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” and “Turn, Turn, Turn!” became galvanizing anthems.

He remains a voice for the disenfranchised – the poor of Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta and victims of racism and greed.

Kira Moyer-Sims, a 19-year-old participant in the Occupy Wall Street movement, was introduced to Seeger’s music on mix CDs from her high-school social studies teacher. Those songs, from a time that seems far away in the age of the iPod, spoke to her with modern urgency and helped push her into the protest ranks.

“Hearing this new music for me was huge and made me realize totally the importance of our nation’s history and the fact that we can change it if we want to,” she said. “Seeing Pete Seeger there in solidarity with the thing I’ve been living the past 38 days … was phenomenal for me.”

The idea of protesting for progressive change seemed to have gone out of vogue in the U.S. – or at least disappeared from public view. After the flower children moved on to mid-life and minivans, Americans turned their focus inward. Fewer people had time for simple songs with complex meanings.

Photo: AP Photo
Conducting an instrument making session on Children’s Day at the Newport Folk Festival.

Rodriguez-Seeger said he was attracted to the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement when he joined a support march two weeks ago in Las Vegas. He was drawn to the anti-establishment message but noticed immediately that something was missing.

“I saw a lot of people getting angry at us for marching, getting out of their SUVs and giving us the finger and screaming obscenities” and using anti-gay slurs, Rodriguez-Seeger said. “I thought, if we were singing right now my gut tells me they’d be less inclined to behave like that because it’s very difficult when you’re hearing music to get that angry.”

Davis, a 59-year-old Bronx bluesman who has been friends with the Seegers for 50 years, saw more than a little something of the grandfather in the grandson when he looked over at the pair Friday night. Rodriguez-Seeger helped organize the march, which came together in 30 hours and was driven for the most part by social-media sites like Twitter, Facebook and now YouTube, where dozens of videos mark the night.

“Pete is seeing his life come to fruition,” Davis said. “He is seeing the fruits of his labors. All the years he invested in Tao, all the years I used to see him take Tao around when Tao was just a teenager, have paid off beautifully.”

Photo: AP Photo
Performing at his 90th birthday at Madison Square Garden.

And the grandfather doesn’t mind the fact that a new generation of Seegers is lifting its voice, even as he gladly slides into the background. Pete Seeger, in fact, says he’s a little bemused by all the attention.

“Of course it’s a great honor, but I’d just as soon be anonymous,” he said. He would like to go down to Zuccotti Park, the heart of the movement, but he hopes he can just do it on the sly without the star power. Maybe next week on Halloween. “I won’t be recognized,” he muses. “Everybody will be in costume.”