He would clamber up on an empty stage with his banjo, the one inscribed with the words, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” He would tell the crowd, “You know this song! And if you don’t, you will in a minute.” Lately, at age 94, he would add, “My voice is cracked, I can’t sing anymore.” Then he would go ahead and sing anyway, his gnarled hands dancing on the banjo strings, and we in the audience would forget to be self-conscious and sing along with him.
In 1967, Pete Seeger made the first of his many visits to us at the Bruderhof – the community behind Plough – and so began a forty-seven-year friendship. As our close neighbor, he would occasionally drop in to teach the schoolchildren a new song. Clearly his life at home was just as important to him as his passion for music – decades spent on the stage and on the road did not change his love and loyalty to his wife Toshi, who preferred to stay out of the spotlight even after their children grew up.
Pete didn’t want a fan club in life, and I bet he wouldn’t want one in death. What about keeping his legacy alive through song instead?
We don’t need to sing to packed theaters or sell platinum albums. We may have cracked or wavering voices. But in our neighborhoods, between generations and across divisions, let’s sing those songs, write our own, and carry on what Pete called the folk process. If we do it right, it will be more than song. It will translate into action for a more peaceful and just world. As Pete sang, “God’s counting on me, God’s counting on you.”