So Pete Seeger passed away on Monday at the age of 94. I, like so many millions of people, have been deeply affected and influenced by his music and his commitment to building a more just world through music. I never met him, but I have had the pleasure of singing and teaching his music. I frankly don’t have much to say that could add to the many amazing tributes that have been published, from the New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and the CBC, to name just a few.
There’s a fantastic documentary on CBC’s program Ideas that lets you savour Pete Seeger’s music and ideas through his own voice. Definitely worth spending an hour to listen, if you are at all interested or curious about the man’s music and his ideas and experiences.
In 1993, Pete published a booked called “Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singalong Memoir.” This book has been deeply influential to me in my teaching, my repertoire, and my thinking about the social embeddedness of music. While he doesn’t explicitly focus on pedagogy, I’ve learned a lot about teaching through this book: how to piece together songs, how to contextualize songs through a wonderful combination of history, social, cultural and economic analysis, and personal connection. I love how, all through the book and the song transcriptions, he gives tips on how to involve everyone in singing. I can get behind anything that inspires a culture of singing.
I leave you with this story, as told by Pete in the Ideas documentary. It’s also in the book, but I love this particular version. It’s a story about the power of many people doing many little things. He doesn’t say here, but I know, from his other writings, that singing together is one of those small, mighty acts:
“I’m convinced that if there’s a human race here in a hundred years, it’s going to be millions upon millions of little things that save us. There’s a story I tell: imagine a seesaw and one end of the seesaw is on the ground because it’s got a big basket half-full of rocks. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air: it’s got a basket one-quarter full of sand. Some of us got teaspoons and we’re trying to fill that basket of sand. Most people are kind of laughing at us, scoffing, “yah, people like you have been trying for thousands of years but it’s leaking out of the basket as fast as you’re putting it in. You’re wasting your time.”
But we say no, we’re looking close. It was a little less than a quarter full and now it’s a little more than a quarter full, and we think that one of these days, that basket is going to be more than half full. We’re watching it closely, and that whole seesaw will go zzzoooooop! In the other direction, and all around the world, they’ll say “gee, how did it happen so suddenly?” Us and all our little teaspoons.
[…] These small little things…the powers that be can break up any big thing that they want. They can attack it from the outside, they can infiltrate it and corrupt it from the inside, they can co-opt it. But what are they going to do about ten million little things? They don’t know where to start. Break up three of them, four more like it start up.”
Thanks Pete, for doing millions of little things and encouraging us to do our own little things to make the world better.
ADDENDUM: Someone pointed out to me a great article from Canada’s online news site rabble.ca about Pete Seeger, focusing on his participatory approach to music performance. Dig this lovely quote from Pete: “I guess it’s kind of a religion with me. Participation. That’s what’s going to save the human race.” Read the full article here.