Pete Seeger: Folk singer continues to connect families with music

Pete Seeger, the American folk singer, talks to TV host Stephen Colbert about two forthcoming albums, inspiring one mother to reminisce on his work and how it continues to unite her family and, she hopes, the American family.

Marco Ferrero/PRNewsFoto
Pete Seeger, the American folk singer, prepares to perform at a benefit concert, celebrating his 90th birthday, in this 2009 photo.

American folk singer Pete Seeger, still going strong at 93 with a new album coming out in September, was on the "The Colbert Report" last night. And I am making it a point to sit the kids down in front of the computer today to experience the moment when generations looked as if they would collide, but instead, merged. Because to "everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven," and it’s time to talk about the music the birds in our family trees sing to our children.

The reference in my opening was to Mr. Seeger’s song, which he recorded in 1962, but was made popular by The Byrds the year I was born, 1965. The line from Ecclesiastes in the Bible was his – and later my – anthem about the quest for peace, equality, and civil rights, calling for patience in the face of adversity.
"A time to be born, a time to die / A time to plant, a time to reap / A time to kill, a time to heal / A time to laugh, a time to weep ... A time for love/ a time for hate/A time for peace, I swear it's not too late."

Seeger is promoting his book “Pete Seeger: In His Own Words,” released last month and is a collection of letters, articles, and lyrics. He talked with Stephen Colbert about two albums to be released on Sept. 25: “A More Perfect Union,” a record that will feature Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello, Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris; and a two-disc set called “Pete Remembers Woody,” a tribute to Woody Guthrie’s centennial, according to Billboard magazine

There are moments frozen in time that we will never forget, those of tragedy, like Sept. 11, and joy, like the birth of a child. There are songs like that, too. Music from our childhood that, when played or sung, bring back not only the moment, but also the freshness, power, and inspiration of youth. Seeger’s songs are among these and perhaps the reason that he is still going strong.

My kids know Seeger’s work from the songs I sang to them while we lived aboard a sailboat when they were young and the wind was fresh. My kids know the songs from the days that I am angry with political decisions. “Mom’s singing Seeger," they say. "She’s probably going to go protest something"

I know Seeger’s songs from "Sesame Street" and growing up in Manhattan in the mid-1960s, going to school with Mrs. Lee Roth teaching, ”You can be a patriot, support our service men, and still wish they were home." Mrs. Roth brought classmate Shawn’s father, just back from Vietnam, in and he sang with us Seeger’s tune, “If you love your Uncle Sam, bring 'em home, bring 'em home.”

Then the class sang, "If I had a Hammer," which Mr. Seeger co-wrote with fellow Weaver, Lee Hays, the song about unity, justice, and peace.  "If I had a hammer. If I had a bell, I'd ring it in the morning / I'd ring it in the evening all over this land / I'd ring out danger! / I'd ring out warning! / I'd ring out love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land."

The moment I will never forget is when we sang the song Seeger popularized, but didn’t write, “We shall Overcome.” Shawn was African American, my first serious crush in first grade, and I can still see his face as he learned the words. None of us knew them at the start of the song, but by the end we would never forget.

I am not suggesting unrealistic, smarmy family sing-alongs, but maybe it’s time to stop humming quietly alone to the iPod and start singing out loud again. There’s a woman in the neighborhood who walks along the busiest intersections, rain or shine, singing out loud to the world. She does it because she says it makes her feel the power of the Lord and herself.

“When music’s in you, sometimes it gets too big to keep to yourself. You got to share,” she told me.

Seeger’s songs have always been those kinds of songs. I hope he gets Mr. Colbert to sing to his children. Let us be united in song, if in no other way and perhaps even in this modern world with all its woes, we shall overcome.

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