Richard Hyatt: Pete Seeger brought folks together

January 28, 2014 

Pete Seeger was a lanky scarecrow with hearing aids in each ear, a floppy hat on his head and a green kerchief stuffed in the back pocket of faded Levis.

He strummed a banjo that was as old as he was, and his voice had retired before he did.

There was neither an ounce of fat nor stardom on his body, and he was talking about old friends, not dropping names, when he mentioned Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, John and Yoko and how he should send Peter, Paul & Mary royalty checks every year.

He performed on a temporary stage outside Fort Benning where he provided background music for the annual demonstration against the former School of the Americas. It was just another day at the microphone for a musician who had been a tuning fork for the liberal movements of the past -- from a milk strike in New York, to civil rights and the Vietnam War.

When he invited the 5,000 people in front of him to join in, they did.

"Guantanemera," he sang, leaving the melody to his grandson. When they got to the chorus, he forgot his age, stomped his foot and extended a hand toward threatening Georgia sky.

That was 14 years ago. And when he died Monday at the age of 94, Bruce Springsteen called him "the father of American folk music."

Seeger influenced scores of artists, popularized songs like We Shall Overcome and This Land is Your Land and wrote others like If I Had a Hammer and Turn, Turn, Turn.

In later years, he supported environmental issues, but when he came here in 1999, it was war and peace -- and it wasn't his first visit to Columbus.

"Haven't been here in 57 years, since I got inducted into the Army. I came here on a bus filled with white guys from Scottsboro, Alabama. They had another bus for the black fellows. I haven't been back since. Course I sing about Columbus all the time. 'Way Down in Columbus, Georgia …' he sings, from the opening lines of "Columbus Stockade Blues." "Woody Guthrie taught me to sing that song."

We talked that day because younger reporters didn't know his name or significance. They didn't understand why music was so important to our social struggles.

"Music is ambiguous," he said. "It isn't as specific as words. It can bring us together when words tear us apart."

As the demonstration came to an end, it was raining but Pete Seeger was singing. MPs were on one side of the gate and Columbus police officers were on the other. It was time to tear down the stage but people were singing If I Had a Hammer one more time.

Pete Seeger had done his job and so had the music.

Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at hyatt31906@knology.net.

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