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What Pete Seeger Taught Us

Where have all the flowers gone?

Long time passing.

Where have all the flowers gone?

Long time ago.

— Pete Seeger

I first heard these words sung by a colleague, Len Chandler, at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village in 1960. I felt as I listened to its rolling cadences that I had somehow always known this song; it was a classic and I wasn’t at all surprised to hear from Len that Pete Seeger had written it. Pete, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 94, had just given us The Bells of Rhymney and We Shall Overcome. He was embroiled in a court case in which he faced time in jail for contempt of Congress, and he was at the forefront of the fight for civil rights in the North. And now, this haunting song from a Russian poem asked us all: When will we ever learn?

In 1963, I approached Pete after a meeting dedicated to boycotting the Hootenanny television show because they were blacklisting Pete. I asked him if I might sing a new song for him, called Ramblin’ Boy. He gave me his full attention, and when I had finished, he asked me to record the song for him. A few weeks later, he sang it in Carnegie Hall, with the Weavers, for a live recording.

I once played Ramblin’ Boy on his TV show, Rainbow Quest. It was over in New Jersey some place, on PBS, with an extremely limited budget. My main memory was, again, how excited I was. It was Pete Seeger, for God’s sake! Pete was the biggest star in my firmament. I was nervous — like you usually get before playing. But he was so supportive that it quickly left your mind that you could screw up.

This was his way with all of us young songwriters. He was among the earliest to sing Dylan’s songs and the songs of Phil Ochs, to mention only a couple. We all knew that Pete believed in us, and that meant everything to us.

Pete and I didn’t talk much about performing. Jim Musselman, from Appleseed Recordings, once said that Pete told him that he had learned a lot about putting a set together from watching me! What I learned from Pete was how electric he was. That energy came from his belief in the music, an unwavering faith that this was something worth doing. This was a game worth the candle, as Dave Van Ronk would have said. He believed with all his heart in the power of song.

Pete was a reserved fellow who was also very warm. He never talked about himself. Instead, he liked to focus on things that he had seen around the world that mattered to him, projects that other people were involved in. That was always reflected in his music. It was about the song and not the singer. The song was always much more important to Pete than he was.

Pete’s conviction that music unites people rather than divides them was his reason for being. He knew, deep in his heart, that people who sang together had nothing to fear from each other.

Was Pete political? Of course. He was political as Walt Whitman was political, as Clarence Darrow and Woody Guthrie were political; as, for that matter, all of us should be political.

He felt that ordinary people deserved protection from bullies of all stripes, and his was the gift of being able to express this belief in music and in the way he lived his life.

Oh, how we’re going to miss him!

Tom Paxton is a folk singer who has recorded more than 50 albums. His songs have been recorded by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and others.

He received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.