Today I am grateful for the life of Pete Seeger. Pete was a musician who used his music to promote civil rights, equality for all workers, care and reverence for the planet, and peace. He dropped out of Harvard in in 1938 after two years as a sociology major. He was disillusioned and wanted to find a way to change the world. His sociology professor told him, “Don’t think you can change the world. The only thing you can do is study it.”
Boy, was that guy ever wrong!
In the 1950s during the McCarthy era, Seeger was accused of un-American activities and banned from network television for two decades. He said it was the most fruitful time of his career. He spent those years performing on college campuses, using his music to inspire a new generation to work for peace and justice. On the skin of his guitar, he had written “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” What a wonderful way to spend one’s life.
I had the privilege of meeting Pete Seeger a few years ago. I was one of the people planning the clergy conference for the Episcopal clergy in the Diocese of New York. Our theme was the spirituality of ecology, and we invited Pete Seeger to come speak to us about his lifelong commitment to the preservation of the Hudson River. He was a gentle man, amazingly strong and sharp for his 90 plus years. He was unassuming, and clearly preferred to play music than speak! That evening, he stayed and gave a concert around the fire for all the clergy. The news articles about him report that he would often say, “I can’t sing much anymore. I used to sing high and sing low. Now I just growl in between.” He sounded pretty great to me that night! And, as he always did, he invited us all to sing along with him, feeding us the next line so we could all join in. It was a sacred night, that night around the fire with Pete. You just had the feeling you were in the presence of true goodness. And you wanted to go out and share that goodness with the world.
In 2011, with his banjo on his back and two canes to support him, he led a 2 mile march with the protesters of Occupy Wall Street. In an interview with the Associated Press a few days after the march, Seeger said, “Be wary of great leaders. Hope that there are many, many small leaders.” That made me think of how often I have longed for someone great to rise up and lead us out of the darkness of our times. But Pete reminded me that I am who I have been praying for. We are all who we have been praying for. We are the small leaders, the ones who each day put one foot in front of the other and try to do the next right thing. Pete Seeger did it with a banjo on his back. Maybe you do it with chalk in your hand, or a stethoscope around your neck, or a laptop on your lap. Wherever we are in life, that is where we are called to take the small steps, to be the voice of the voiceless, to work for peace in our communities, to honor all people. That’s where we are called to do the next right thing.
So, I am grateful to God for giving us Pete Seeger, and I’m grateful to Pete Seeger for the courage to follow his heart and his truth and inspire us all. Go with God, Pete.