If you reflect on American men in public life whom you admire, from the entertainment world, to politics, to business, and sports, who can you say you truly admire for their character? For their integrity? For their outspoken courage in the face of danger to life and freedom? How many names appear on your list? How many men would you say have lived a life that you would happily emulate, and by imitating them, that you could move the world ahead towards goodness?
First on my list would be the late musician and American humanitarian Pete Seeger. I have never known a time in my life when I wasn’t touched by his moral example. From my early teens when I picked up a guitar I was encouraged and empowered to sing by his music. The first guitar song I learned was one of his: “If I Had A Hammer.” Like most people in the Civil Rights movement I went on to sing “We Shall Overcome,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and“Turn, Turn, Turn.” Pete’s songs were singable by ordinary folks, and by singing them, our humanity was enhanced, and deepened. His songs showed us a gentle strength, that suffered under but did not retreat from the evils of wrong views. Wounded by but not made bitter by Right-wing paranoia Pete became a champion of the planet. Instead of more fame, he committed himself to water quality; instead of cashing in for money, he cared instead about a river.
He wrote good songs and taught us to sing them, songs about kindness, about inclusion, and more of the stuff in life that people really cared about: fairness, honesty, justice and singing great songs. He performed funny songs about conquoring giants by dancing; he whistled, he taught the world to play the banjo. He has always been there, a steady anchor in the storm of confusion and greed, telling us to sing along, everybody, and making us feel better when we did.
Now he has gone on, and so long Pete, it’s been good to know you, and thank you for letting me have a hero whom I could admire without reservation, whom I could always count on to sing me the truth. You showed me the kind heart of an America that I can be proud of; your America is a country I want to live in, a land worth sacrificing for, a land made for you and me and them and everybody, singing out together, our lives made infinitely better by the songs.
Seeing the joy on Pete's face at the Obama inauguration, as he, Bruce Springsteen, Pete's grandson Tao (playing Pete's 12-string guitar) and a chorus of fifty young people stand in front of Abraham Lincoln's statue to lead the crowd in "This Land is Your Land," is to see a man standing tall on his true roots, a musical American Bodhisattva, demonstrating a life well lived.