Remembering Pete Seeger

Bill Ritter's daily take on the news.

January 28, 2014 1:27:57 PM PST
There are so many way to remember Pete Seeger, and a quick scan of social media sites today shows that folks are doing just that. Remembering Pete Seeger.

What a life he led, what an example he set, what lessons he taught all of us - all the while remaining so down-to-earth humble, so simple in his lifestyle, so dismissive of consumerism and materialism, so disdainful of the junk that crowds our closets and drains our bank accounts.

His songs did more than just end a war and change the world; he transformed our spirit, lifted our hearts - and that's why so many people today are mourning this great man, who died today here in Manhattan at the age of 94. 94! What a life, right?!

I've been playing Pete Seeger songs, crying and smiling, thinking about how he touched so many periods of our lives. His twanging banjo songs, and the immortalization of his tunes by Peter Paul and Mary, and, more recently, by Bruce Springsteen with the Seeger Sessions album and tour - kept his creativity and beauty alive for several generations of us.

But Seeger's music isn't his only legacy. He became a victim and symbol of one of the darkest times in American history - the 1950s "red scare" - when thousands of citizens were blacklisted and jailed and targeted by right-wingers obsessed with Communists. In the 40s and early 50s, Seeger and other folksingers were members of the Party, and he paid the price years later when he refused to answer personal questions about his beliefs before Congress. He was held in contempt and ordered to prison. Like so many others, his conviction was overturned by judges who helped right the insanity and paranoia of those crazy times.

Pete was blacklisted from national television appearances by TV networks who at the time showed little spine - including sad to say ABC, which refused to allow Seeger to appear on its folk music show called "Hootenanny" in the early 60s. When other and younger folk singers refused to appear on the show because of Seeger's snuff, ABC yielded, but only if Pete agreed to sign a "loyalty oath" to the U.S. He refused. What a guy!

What he must have been thinking decades later when Pres. Clinton gave Seeger the nation's high arts award, the National Medal of Arts. Actually, he spent so little time dwelling on the negative, that Pete likely put nothing but a positive spin to it.

After his blacklisting, Pete became a troubadour for the anti-war movement, penning and singing some of the anthems of the time. "If I Had A Hammer," "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" and "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." He railed against the older men who so readily and sometimes eagerly sent young men to die in misguided wars.

But he was more than just an anti-war activist; he was a staunch environmentalist, leading the campaign to clean the toxic water of the mighty Hudson River. His concerts raised money for him to build his 100-plus-foot sloop called Clearwater, which became the emblem for anti-pollution work. It was Pete's determination that pressured General Electric, which had dumped PCBs into the river, to dredge and clean up the toxins.

I was lucky to interview Pete a couple of years ago, during a "Winter's Eve" story on Arlo Guthrie. Pete walked into my interview with Arlo, as my eyes opened wide - I remember thinking this is amazing, Pete Seeger is walking into our interview!

I asked him what it was like, performing with the son of his mentor, Woody Guthrie, and it was then that Pete, like a preacher, launched into a little speech about seeds being thrown, right out of the bible, the reference being Woody had thrown his seeds and Arlo had sprouted. Here's the link to that story - the part with Seeger in it starts at about 1:43.

Arlo wrote on his Facebook page about Seeger and his farewell phone conversation last night with him. And Peter Yarrow, the great Peter Yarrow, flew in from the Middle East last night, landed, and went right to New York Presbyterian Hospital, and spent, he says, 90 minutes with Seeger ? in "the most precious and remarkable of farewells. Of course, Pete will never be gone, in the most important sense." Beautiful remembrance by a beautiful man. Tonight, we remember Pete Seeger and his remarkable life. Oh, and one more thing to consider about Pete: His death has been the number one trending item on all social media.

I hope you can join us for tonight's 11 p.m. news. We're taking a look at some of the new security that will be left in place post-Super Bowl, and we'll have the latest on the growing frustration of many local businesses that bought in to the sales hype and hoopla by the NFL that the "big game" would mean big bucks for them. Turns out, as we've been saying for the past couple of weeks, the promises of gold were a bit overblown. Plenty of rooms at area hotels - imagine that!

We'll also have any breaking news of the night, plus Meteorologist Lee Goldberg's AccuWeather forecast, and Rob Powers with the night's sports. I hope you can join Sade Baderinwa, tonight at 11.


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