Pete Seeger turns 90 on World Press Freedom Day: Thank you for the protest music!

Pete Seeger: Still singing protest at 90...
Pete Seeger: Still singing protest at 90...

Today, 3 May, is once again World Press Freedom Day. It is recognised by the UN, and observed by media professionals and media activists worldwide to ‘draw attention to the role of independent news and information in society, and how it is under attack’.

By happy coincidence, today also marks the 90th birthday of Pete Seeger, American folk singer and a pioneer of protest music. Since media freedom is inseparable from the democratic rights to dissent and protest, I will devote this blog post to salute Pete and his many decades of music for worthy causes — ranging from the American civil rights movement and opposing the Vietnam war to saving the environment and nuclear disarmament.

I won’t go over the basic biographical or career information, which is easily found online. Wikipedia has a good entry, and PBS shows a career timeline which has covered some of the most momentous events of the past century. There are approximately 200 songs (music and lyrics) that Pete wrote or with which he is associated – including “Guantanamera,” “Where Have All The Flowers Gone,” “If I Had A Hammer,” “Turn Turn Turn,” “Wimoweh,” “We Shall Overcome”.

Pete is a hero for at least three generations of music lovers and freedom lovers around the world who believe in human rights, human dignity and democratic freedoms. Armed with nothing more than his banjo and melodious voice, and driven by the courage of his conviction, this small, gentle man has stood up to mighty leaders, generals and officials.

Never underestimate the power of one determined man...
Never underestimate the power of one determined man...
Pete is celebrated as much for his artistic and cultural achievements as for standing resolutely for his political beliefs and for lending his voice and music in support of causes be believed in. In 1955, he was called before the now infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, but refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights. He said: “”I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”

This defiance resulted in sustained harassment, persecution and professional isolation. As his recent PBS biography noted, “Standing strong for deeply-held beliefs, Seeger went from the top of the pop charts to the top of the blacklist and was banned from American commercial television for more than 17 years. This determined singer/songwriter made his voice heard and encouraged the people of the world to sing out along with him.”

‘If you love your country, you’ll find ways to somehow to speak out, to do what you think is right,” Pete says in this powerful documentary looking back at over half a century of activist singing and music.

Watch opening segment of PBS AMERICAN MASTERS series: Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, directed by Jim Brown and first aired in February 2008

Watch more PBS interviews with Pete Seeger and some of his archived performances from yesteryear

Having pleaded under the First Amendment during the communist witch days of the 1950s, Pete repeatedly paid tribute to the far-sighted American pioneers who introduced the First Amendment guaranteeing the freedom of speech.

“As some judge said, if there is any fixed star in our firmament, that is the First Amendment,” he says in a talk-cum-performance at the Ford Hall Forum. In this audio-only piece, he talks the privilege of living under the First Amendment. He recalls his experience being questioned by the House Unamerican Activities Committee, encounters with censorship, and his relationship with fellow singer Woody Guthrie. It runs for nearly an hour, but is worth every second.

For someone like Pete Seeger who sang alongside Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights movement leaders and activists, it must have been deeply moving to be able to sing at the concert to mark President Barack Obama’s inauguration on 20 January 2009 at the Lincoln Memorial.

Watch Bruce Springsteen sing along with Pete Seeger on Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”. As he often does, Pete invites the euphoric audience to sing along!

One of my favourite Pete Seeger songs is “Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There is a Season)”, often abbreviated to “Turn! Turn! Turn!”. It’s a song adapted entirely from the the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible (with the exception of the last line) and composed to music by Pete Seeger in 1959. Seeger waited until 1962 to record it,

Pete Seeger tells how he came to write “Turn Turn Turn.”

I have always believed that we have to get creative and resourceful when the basic freedoms of conscience and freedom of expression are under siege from despotic rulers and fanatical extremists. When we are not allowed to express in factual prose, we must turn to creative prose. And when prose fails, we still have verse, lyrics, satire and drama — the possibilities are only limited by our imagination. This is why I celebrate activist artistes like Pete Seeger, and invoke the memory of activist-poets like Adrian Mitchell and Ken Saro-wiwa. When the barbarians are at our gates and we feel surrounded by the unrelenting forces of hatred, intolerance and tribalism, they remind us that Another World is Possible — but we have to believe in it, stay the course and find ways to sing, dance and laugh our way out of gloom.

And here’s Pete singing another one of my personal favourites, a song that powered the civil rights movement and has since inspired and sustained struggles for social justice around the world: We Shall Overcome.

New York Times editorial appreciation on 5 May 2009: Still Singing

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

2 thoughts on “Pete Seeger turns 90 on World Press Freedom Day: Thank you for the protest music!”

  1. As a politically active India, I have grown up singing We Shall Overcome. I didn’t know Pete Seeger’s association with it, and somehow had not heard his rendering of it. Thank you for sharing it…and this tribute.

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