American Culture

An era passes with Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, a warrior for social justice in America, held the line until the end.

I regret not seeing Pete Seeger live in concert–I was too young to have appreciated him in the 1960s and 1970s . I eventually got to see Richie Havens on the same bill as Arlo Guthrie in 2009, but not Pete Seeger. And now he’s gone at age 94.

There was was a recent Facebook post asking people to name ten albums that stayed with them. I forgot to add in my response one important collection: Songs for Political Action. It’s a 10-disc collection of American protest songs from the 1920s through the early 1050s. One of the songs was “Hold the Line” by Pete Seeger, written about the Peekskill Riots. I first heard selections from these albums in 1998 when I participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities workshop called “Communism in American Life” at Emory University.

I had never heard of the Peekskill riots before that year. Pete Seeger and some colleagues organized a concert at a park north of Peekskill, NY and the featured artist was to be civil rights activist and actor Paul Robeson. I had heard stories about Paul Robeson just that spring from a friend who had been born in Brooklyn and, at age 2, found himself seated on Paul Robeson’s lap at a neighbor’s home while the adults discussed civil rights. The pieces fell together and Peekskill became the subject of my conference research.

The concert was designed to be a fund-raiser for the Harlem Chapter of the Civil Rights Congress on August 27, 1949. Pete Seeger was supposed to be one of the opening acts. Before any musicians took the stage, however, the venue was attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan and veterans who opposed the politics and views of the organizers. The “hoodlums” (in the words of Seeger and others), chased the concert-goers back down a one-lane road, attacking cars and destroying property left behind.

The concert was rescheduled for the next weekend and 20-25,500 people turned out to support the event. They were guarded by 4,000 union members. After the concert, attendees were once again attacked by mobs of Klansmen and their supporters. The police did not intervene to protect those on the road, but eventually they turned on the remaining union guard. Almost 200 people went to the hospital. Governor Thomas Dewey praised the response of the police.

Three days later, Pete Seeger collaborated with several friends on a song called “Hold the Line.” The chorus goes:

Hold the line, hold the line,
As we held the line at Peekskill we will hold it everywhere.
Hold the line, hold the line
We will hold the line forever ’til there’s freedom everywhere

The remarkable thing about this recording is its inclusion of sounds recorded at the riot and the spoken testimony of eyewitnesses. It is one of the earliest recordings that I have heard to combine such elements into a song–something this is so commonplace as to be unremarkable today.

Pete Seeger held the line until the end. He was 30 at the time of Peekskill and his age made him one of the godfathers of the folk music movement as it wound through the 1960s. He co-wrote “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” He continued performing, and speaking out about human rights through 2013.

He inspired generations of musicians. My second biggest regret, after not seeing Pete Seeger live, is missing the Bruce Springsteen Seeger Sessions concert at Blossom Music Center near Cleveland in 2006. It was the Friday of the month when I regularly got together with a group of friends and we emailed around some suggestions for something different to do. I suggested the concert–only one other person backed the idea. We met for dinner instead. But the person who had been interested in the concert and I got into some deeper conversations and we talked about driving down to catch the end of the concert. By then it was pretty late and we figured the concert was over. But for us, that was just the beginning. We got married a year and a half later.

Thanks, Pete (and Bruce) for sparking the relationship.

I’ll close with Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen performing “This Land Is Your Land” at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration celebration.

12 replies »

  1. Lovely–thank you. And if you get a chance, check out the album he did with Big Bill Broonzy at Northwestern University in 1956. Fantastic stuff.

  2. Wonderful piece on a magnificent American. Many thanks, Cat, for this tribute to a Founding Father in American music….BTW, Roger McGuinn once told me Pete was THE American folk singer…

    • The historian in me always appreciates the people who carry on the legacy and pass it to others.

  3. Thank-you Cat. I am a child of the 60’s and was raised on folk music. My parents were and are long time folkies, originally from New York City. Wherever we lived, they always found folk singing groups and took me and my sisters with them when they went. They both played guitar and my father also played a little banjo I have memories of this from as young as 4 years old (I am now 54 yrs.). I grew up singing Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Weavers songs and more. I too regret never having seen Pete live.

    Peter Nerenstone

    • Peter,
      There seems to be something to being from New York that leads one in this direction. Your story made me smile. Thanks for sharing the memory.

    • The unexpected encounters can be especially memorable.

      I was teaching geography in an all-girls high school and a student from my last period class came in to ask if they could stay in their English class a little longer because a friend of the teacher was visiting and talking to the class. I said “sure” and took care of some work while I waited. After an hour, I decided to pop down the hall and see what was so interesting. The “friend” turned out to be Russell Means and he was talking about the Indian Rights movement. Wish I’d gotten impatient earlier.

  4. Very nice piece, Cat.. We take for granted so many things that required blood, sweat and tears…and a great story about you and John

  5. I think too many people under play Pete’s anti-racism work. Just six short months before his death, Pete was my guest at a fundraiser in Peekskill and talked about the day he and Paul Robeson came to town. On that night, August 2013, Pete was supporting our efforts to save public housing from ultra right wing politicians in city hall.