Remembering Pete Seeger

It’s hard to talk about Pete Seeger in the past tense.  But according to the reports, he passed away at the age of 94 on Monday in Beacon New York.  Pete would undoubtedly have us sing “To every thing/turn turn turn/there is a season/and a time for every place/under heaven. A time to be born/a time to die…”

Just a few years ago the documentary film about his life – Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, was the big hit of the Doc Aviv film festival at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque, and an extra showing had to be arranged, with people literally sitting in the isles.

Wasn’t that a time

My memories of Pete begin with The Weavers, the wonderful singing group that he led, together with Lee Hayes, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, whose first hit was none other than the Israeli song Tzena, Tzena,Tzena

This was not coincidental, since the story of Jewish national liberation was an inspiration for the progressive forces around the world. The Weavers specialized in bringing folk music and what we now call “World Music” to the people.  Kisses Sweeter than Wine, Irene Goodnight, If I Had a Hammer, Wasn’t That a Time, the name of the documentary which captured their career and their great 1980 reunion concert.

Despite being hounded and blacklisted during the McCarthy period, Pete taught us the role of folk music in social protest, in the struggle for what can be called today Tikkun Olam, the fight for a better, more just world.  He did this in his introduction to The People’s Song Book, and in his Johnny Appleseed column in Sing Out!.

Pete on the kibbutz

My cousin Yochanan from Kibbutz Hatzor tells me how Pete came to the cheder ochel (dining room) of the kibbutz to play for the members in the late 50s/early 60s, particularly impressing the children.  The story behind that performance was that Pete came to visit the editors of the Tel Aviv-based Israeli peace monthly New Outlook, and said he wanted to visit a kibbutz, to see socialism in action.  Since Managing Editor Shmuel Be’eri, who had been an American sailor on the Exodus ship in 1947, was a member of Kibbutz Hatzor, the rest was easy.

When Pete came to perform at Heichal Hatarbut in Tel Aviv in May, 1967, I joined the members of my kibbutz, Barkai, many of whom were originally North Americans, who climbed on to the benches of a MANN truck to make their way to the big city, to see the historic, heartwarming and inspiring performance, which was in many ways a sing-a-long hootenanny, with Pete leading the way.  

No to the Occupation, Yes to a progressive Israel

One month later, after the Israeli victory in the 1967 Six Day War, which relieved Israelis from the sense of threat but also saddled us with the beginnings of the occupation over the Palestinians, Pete declared that he wouldn’t return to Israel again until the occupation ended.   And he kept to his word.   He even contributed a portion of every royalty that he received for the song Turn, Turn, Turn to the struggle against house demolitions of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem.

While he was perceived to be a supporter of BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) against Israel, he continued to support progressive Israeli causes, clearly continuing to long for the pioneering image of the State of Israel that inspired him when he was with The Weavers.  

His last moment on the public stage came when Bruce Springsteen, “the Boss”, was invited to appear at President Obama’s first inauguration ceremony in 2009, and he said he would only do so if Pete was alongside him, to sing together Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”.  I remember sitting in a Jerusalem pub with friends, all of us clearly moved by the occasion.

Over the years I heard from friends in the Northeast how they had participated in one of Pete’s Clearwater voyages to protect the Hudson River, or how Pete suddenly appeared unannounced at a folk gathering.

The last memory I will record here is that of Abie Nathan on the Voice of Peace radio station, during his hour of peace songs “as the sun set in the Mediterranean”.  During each of those hours Abie included Pete’s wish/vision – Last night I had/the Strangest Dream/I ever dreamed before/I dreamed the world /had all agreed/to put an end to war.

About the Author
Hillel Schenker is Co-Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, and lives in Tel Aviv