Bruce Springsteen celebrated Pete Seeger’s ninetieth birthday by telling the great folk singer and activist, “You outlasted the bastards, man.” And so he did.
Seeger, who died on January 27 at 94, was singing with Woody Guthrie when “This Land Is Your Land” was a new song. And because he meant and lived the words of the oft-neglected final verse—“Nobody living can ever stop me, / As I go walking that freedom highway”—Seeger was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, blacklisted and sent to the sidelines of what was becoming an entertainment industry. But Seeger just kept singing “This Land,” kept writing songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” kept playing a banjo inscribed with the message “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender,” and kept rambling across the country and around the world—for every cause from labor rights to civil rights to peace.
Seeger was convicted in 1961 of contempt of Congress for refusing to name the Young Communists and Young Socialists he sang with in the heyday of 1930s and ’40s anti-fascist organizing. Before his conviction, which was overturned the following year, he told the court: “I have been singing folk songs of America and other lands to people everywhere. I am proud that I never refused to sing to any group of people because I might disagree with some of the ideas of some of the people listening to me. I have sung for rich and poor, for Americans of every possible political and religious opinion and persuasion, of every race, color and creed.”
Seeger’s singing was stronger than the forces that sought to silence him. With what Springsteen hailed as a “stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism,” the bestselling singer of the early 1950s—crooning “Goodnight Irene” with the Weavers—was still up for a Grammy in 2014. Along the way, he helped teach civil rights campaigners how to sing “We Shall Overcome,” slipped anti–Vietnam War messages into TV variety shows and shaped modern environmental activism with his Hudson River Sloop Clearwater project. Seeger lived long enough to inspire the great-grandchildren of those who first heard him singing the songs of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, or serenading Eleanor Roosevelt, or accompanying Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential run. When he led Occupy Wall Street activists seventy years his junior on a thirty-five-block march through Manhattan in October 2011, his friend Gary Davis said Seeger was “seeing his life come to fruition.”
It was this understanding of music as art and mission that drew Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bragg and Ani DiFranco to the man whose energy, warmth, intellect and Integrity they emulated.
When Springsteen invited Seeger to perform as part of the celebration of Barack Obama’s first inauguration, they sang “This Land Is Your Land” the way Seeger liked it: with “all the verses—all the ones that Woody wrote, especially the two that usually get left out.” So a new president heard an old lefty take a class-conscious swipe at the “Private Property” signs that turned away union organizers, hobos and banjo-pickers.
Pete Seeger outlasted the bastards. But he did so much more. He showed us how to do our time with grace, with a sense of history and honor, with a progressive vision for the ages and a determination to embrace the next great cause because the good fight is never finished. It’s just waiting for a singer to remind us that “the world would never amount to a hill of beans if people didn’t use their imaginations to think of the impossible.”