Songwriter’s impact was profound

By: By Sheelagh<br />Mathews

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Feb 05, 2014 06:00 am

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I was barely six years old when I first started singing along to the songs of Pete Seeger. I remember how taken in I was by the melody of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” as sung by Peter, Paul and Mary. And I remember being amazed at how a song could tell a story of several lifetimes in just a few minutes.

But, what I remember most about Seeger’s song about the flowers, as I experienced it from the eyes of a child, was how it reeled you in, like a fish on hook, and then whacked you on the head with it’s real message about the human condition of love and hope, the cruelty of war and death, and the eternal cycle of life. That’s quite a lot to teach a young child of six in just one song, don’t you think? Whether he knew it or not, although he probably did in his own way, when I was young and figuratively hit over the head by his lyrics of the flower song, Pete Seeger became a seminal influence in my life.

His songs shaped me, and, from what I can tell, shaped many others, too. Writing from his heart, Seeger’s songs had a way of bringing a message home. “We Shall Overcome,” a song based on an old gospel spiritual, became the anthem of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. It was the kind of song people could get behind. It was the kind of song that could bring out a person’s inner strength and courage, even when terrified by the prospect of brutality and injustice. I wonder just how many protesting African Americans found comfort in his song as they marched, just 50-some years ago, alongside their leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., demanding the same rights as whites.

The environmental movement gained a lot from Pete Seeger’s songs, too. He had a way of seeing things in an interconnected sort of way. Like, he understood how people would be disappointed if they went to the beach and found that they couldn’t swim or play in the water because it was too polluted. Seeger believed when people could see for themselves how their actions affected others, including our rivers and lands, then they would want to do something about it. He was right.

Seeger’s concerts on the beaches of the toxic Hudson River, the river that runs through New York, had a way of inspiring people to action. His audiences sang along to his song, “Sailin’ Up Sailin’ Down,” with hope in their hearts that “…the river may be dirty now, but she’s getting cleaner everyday….” And guess what happened? Things started to change. Legislators got behind the people’s wishes and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an environmental lawyer, played a part in protecting the Hudson River, too. The result? The mighty Hudson River got cleaned up and led to the Clean Water Act of 1972, the primary U.S.A. federal law governing water pollution. Families can now head to the Hudson River for a healthy day of fresh air and fun. Now that’s what I call the power of positive thinking.

Seeger had a way of getting everybody involved in his music. He wasn’t content to stand up on stage in front of a microphone and sing a song to his audience. He wanted everybody in his audience to sing with him. There’s nothing like a cast of hundreds or thousands of voices to give a song some life. He had an almost magical way of engaging people, like when he led a rousing sing-a-long of “This Land is Your Land” at President Obama’s inauguration.

Seeger somehow knew people could change the world for the better through a song. Remember his old nugget, “If I Had a Hammer”? There are few songs that hit the nail on the head like that one. (Sorry, pun intended.) His influence on generations of people and musicians — including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Peter, Paul and Mary — is profound.

So, let’s salute Pete Seeger and his lifetime work by continuing to raise our voices now that he’s gone at the age of 94. Singing about justice, freedom and the love between our brothers and our sisters — now that’s in our best interest.

For more in your best interest, follow Sheelagh on Twitter @sheesays.


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