A few years ago, I toured Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during the opening reception of a work conference. I was wandering aimlessly through the exhibits and my second free beer was starting to kick in when I ran across something that stopped me dead in my tracks.
It was an old banjo head. Filthy and worn, it had holes in the places below the strings and seemed somehow out of place next to the memorabilia of Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix and other rock legends.
Even more unusual, there were words stenciled around the perimeter of the head:
THIS MACHINE SURROUNDS HATE AND FORCES IT TO SURRENDER.
And just like that, I realized I was looking at what might be the most famous banjo head in the world, the piece of skin that sat atop the long-neck banjo played by Pete Seeger.
A Pete Seeger Primer
If you don’t know who Pete Seeger is, stop what you’re doing, go to YouTube and binge watch Pete Seeger videos for the rest of the day. Here’s a sample to help you get started:
Seeger was born in New York to musical parents. After a brief stint in the military during WWII, Seeger formed a folk group and was quickly dragged into the McCarthy hearings, where Congress wasted no time in branding him a communist.
Undeterred, he met Martin Luther King Jr. and taught the civil rights leader how to use music as a tool for organizing groups of people in a common cause. Ever hear of the song, “We Shall Overcome?” It was the anthem of the civil rights movement and Seeger is the guy who sang it to King for the first time.
Seeger spent the next 50+ years writing and performing songs that made a difference. From “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” to the Ecclesiastes-inspired “Turn, Turn, Turn” to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” Seeger wrote and popularized tunes that gave working class people a voice by taking a stand for peace, the environment and the common good.
If you haven’t noticed, there aren’t many Pete Seegers left in popular music. Today’s pop stars write songs about the size of their butts and boyfriends who have dumped them. But Seeger understood that music has a purpose. In the right hands, it can be a tool for achieving a higher purpose.
What We Can Learn From Pete Seeger
Was Pete Seeger perfect? He would have been the first to say he wasn’t. None of us are. But it seems to me that there are several lessons we can learn from Pete — lessons that are especially relevant to those of us who are committed to helping bring change to the world around us.
Do what you can, whenever you can.
I think Seeger saw himself as a social justice worker who happened to play music. If he had different talents, the inscription on his banjo could just as easily have been etched on a typewriter or a piece of farm equipment that helped feed the hungry. The point is that you don’t have to be a musician or a writer to make the world a better place. Take the skills that you have and use them — constantly and tirelessly — to take a stand on behalf of the poor, the planet and the oppressed.
If you’re the real deal, your messages continue to resonate after you’re long gone. The things Seeger sang and wrote about are arguably more relevant today than they were fifty years ago because they were birthed from a place of authenticity. By all accounts, it wasn’t an act. Seeger lived the commitments he sang about in his music. He lived in a log cabin that he built with his own hands in 1949. He routinely performed for free and gave away the rights to most of his songs. When he died in 2014, he drove a 2002 Subaru and was said to have earned the annual salary of a construction worker. The takeaway is that it’s not enough to talk about doing the right things. Social justice begins at home with messages that are amplified through the way you live your life.
Never give up.
Seeger was painfully aware that change happens slowly. Sometimes it happens so slowly that it doesn’t seem like the needle moves at all. Fortunately, that never stopped Pete from doing the right thing. In the wake of the BP oil spill in 2012, he wrote a song called, “God’s Counting on Me, God’s Counting on You.” Several of the verses speak about the need to press forward, even when it seems like you’re not making much progress:
Don’t give up, don’t give in/Workin’ together we all can win/God’s counting on me/God’s counting on you
What we do, you and me/Will affect eternity/God’s counting on me/God’s counting on you
If you ask me, the world doesn’t need any more celebrity athletes or politicians or pop stars. But we could use more Pete Seegers. A lot more.
And who knows? Maybe the next Pete Seeger is the person staring back at you in the mirror.