Pete Seeger: My Spiritual Father
Photo Credit: Augusto Menezes
The death of Pete Seeger hit me hard. His death affected me as if he were my own father.
In a way he is.
Pete stands for the best of America. Throughout his life, he stood up and fought for freedom of speech, peace, social justice and equal rights for all, and a clean earth. Pete loved the Hudson River in New York. He advocated for the cleaning up of the Hudson of PCBs and the Clean Water Act. His sailing ship, the Clearwater, serves as a symbol and beacon of environmental stewardship.
Pete is part of my own history, part of my DNA.
I grew up in Berkeley in the sixties. My parents were peaceniks, anti-nuclear activists, human rights, women's rights and civil rights activists. Mom and Dad organized and participated in various acts of protests, rallies, and actions and they brought me along from the time of my birth. Pete’s spirit was there with us in all of these actions.
Music was a central part of the movement then. My family went to folk music concerts, sang at activist events, and listened at home to Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba, the Kingston Trio, the Mama and the Papas and, of course, Pete Seeger and the Weavers, his band.
In the car, in the house, and on camping trips, Pete’s songs and messages lifted us to a higher place, moved and unified us. We sang, “This Little Light of Mine,” “This Land is Your Land,” “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and of course, “We Shall Overcome.” As a child, I loved Pete’s wonderful album for children, Pete Seeger at Town Hall. I stared endlessly at the cover picture of the little girl on the stool, whom Pete was singing to. I liked to imagine I was the one on the stool.
As the Vietnam War ended, the social movements of the era died out in popular American culture. And, for many years, the spirit of the sixties faded into an atmosphere of rampant consumerism and narcissism. Things shifted from “we” to “me.” Then, starting in 2008, the banks came crashing, the economy tanked, and major storms hit many vital economic centers, including the New York City area, where I now live. Occupy was born, and social movements of justice and equality for all, regained a popular voice once again.
In Zucchotti Park, through the streets of New York City, and in many towns around the country, people were marching, singing songs of peace, love, and freedom.
To me, it felt like the sixties all over again, and in this cultural rebirth, I re-found Pete.
One night, I attended a Clearwater concert on 95th Street on the upper west side. At the concert, it was announced that Occupy was coming up to meet us, and we would march together to Columbus Circle, on 67th Street. At the end of the concert, the entire hall of people filed out onto Columbus Avenue and thousands of us marched and sang side by side with the 92-year-old Pete, who walked with the help of two canes. In all of this, I felt my parents’ spirits with me.
Pete was an activist until his last breath at 94. As I write this, my heart breaks for the loss of this great man, my spiritual father. I know that the best we can do to honor and remember him is to become the activists Pete called for.
I love you, Pete. I will keep singing your music, walking your walk, and introducing young people to your vital vision until the day I die.
‘This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.’
I will always shine your light.
Heidi Hutner is Director of Sustainability Studies and Director of Environmental Humanities at Stony Brook University, where she is a professor of ecofeminism and environmental justice. She writes books and articles about the environment, and blogs at: Ecofeminist and Mothering Ruminations . She is the author of the forthcoming, Polluting Mama: ecofeminist memoir, poetry, and prose (Demeter, 2014).