A folk singer who pushed for the folk
Pete Seeger was accessible.
He died on Monday, Jan. 27, but his voice — reedy and upbeat — carries on in the memory of all he encouraged to raise their own voices.
I’m one of them.
Twenty-three years ago, for the 150th anniversary of the Helderberg Anti-Rent Wars, Voorheesville historian Dennis Sullivan wrote a play for local schoolchildren to perform so they could own their history.
Sullivan gave me a phone number for Seeger because I was interested in finding out more about the war’s songs.
I dialed the number expecting to get a public relations person, and was surprised when Seeger’s wife answered and handed the phone to him.
What I learned in that exchange has stayed with me all these years.
“One of the extraordinary parts of America, which usually is skipped or skimmed over in American history courses,” Seeger told me, “is the way American history has been formed, not always by the presidents and the officials, but by the rank and file people who kept pushing.”
Seeger hummed the tune of “Ol’ Dan Tucker” to remember an Anti-Rent song and filled in the words that were written about “Big Bill Snyder,” the sheriff collecting rents who was shot by revolting farmers. In 1844, S.H. Foster set new words to Dan Emmett’s popular tune for a July 4 celebration in Reidsville, the first battleground of the Anti-Renters.
Seeger learned of that song a century later when he read Henry Christman’s Tin Horns and Calico, a history detailing the half-century struggle where Helderberg farmers, discontent with a patroon system that annually collected rent, masqueraded as Indians in calico and warned each other of the approaching sheriff with a blast on their tin dinner horns.
“The moon was shining silver bright,” sang Seeger. “The sheriff came in the dead of night.”
“The politician,” said Seeger, when he stopped singing, “can go only so far as the people will follow him.” About the Anti-Rent Wars, he went on, “So now here’s a case where the New York State constitution needs some changing. And, how is it going to be changed?”
He answered himself, “If it hadn’t been for the agitation of these people, it probably wouldn’t have changed...”
He conceded, though, “They were using violence, and the average person doesn’t like violence.” Seeger cited a number of incidents, from Cold Creek Rebellion in the 1890s in Rhode Island to the union organizing in the 1900s, where agitation, even violence, on the part of workingmen led to change through legislation or presidential action.
He also cited President Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation as happening because of “thousands of unknown people who risked their lives....like Elijah Lovejoy, who was lynched and killed because he was publishing an abolitionist newspaper.”
Lovejoy’s brother, related Seeger, wrote a letter to Lincoln, asking when he would sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln replied: “I can’t sign yet; you keep pushing.”
Those words have pushed me all these years, with the thought that the rank and file, the often-unheard individual, could find a voice on our newspaper pages.
I’m not much of a singer but I believe in the power of the common voice.
“Lo and behold,” Seeger went on, rising to a crescendo to describe a man he admired, “in the 1950s and ’60s, a man named Martin Luther King Jr. worked out a way to get the support of the body politic: by being completely nonviolent — and then he ended up getting assassinated himself.”
“We Shall Overcome” — a song I sang myself during protests for desegregation — said Seeger “has gone around the world, sung in demonstrations from Korea to Latin America, in all different languages.” He sang a bit of it in Spanish before saying he was looking forward to good changes “happening around the world...now that women are demanding to be heard and not sitting in the kitchen all the time.”
When I told him I was taking notes on his views while sitting at my kitchen table, my children playing at the sink, dinner bubbling on the stove, he laughed.
His optimism was contagious. “I look forward to the feminine tradition of nurturing becoming the most important tradition in the world,” he said, “and the male tradition of adventure and achievement and power and glory taking second place.”
And so, I try to nurture as an editor. And, as I write these words, I’m humming softly my memorial to Pete Seeger, “We shall overcome...some day.”