Role Models & Heroes: Peter Seeger (2016)

By October 31, 2016 November 19th, 2018 Bnei Mitzvah, Heroes & Role Models

The following essay on Dale Chihuly was written by Jonah Edelman-Gold, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this can be seen below. The process  improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.

My Bar Mitzvah is a time when I learn, grow, compare my experiences to other people’s and explore my beliefs. When my beliefs line up with someone else’s, I consider him or her a role model. One of my role models is the folksinger Pete Seeger. He believed in human rights, was a pacifist and he wanted to protect the environment. He spent his life using his music to stand up for what he believed in and share those beliefs with others.

Pete Seeger was born on May 3, 1919, in Patterson, New York. Music and politics played a big role in his childhood. Both of his parents were musicians and music teachers. Because his father supported the Wobblies, a radical labor group, and was a conscientious objector during World War I, he lost his teaching job. He then decided to build his own traveling stage and bring classical music to workers around the country. So when Pete Seeger was very young, he, his brothers and his parents went around the country playing music. During those travels, Pete Seeger fell in love with the folk music he heard from the different regions, and he learned to play it. Pete Seeger’s first instrument was the ukulele, but then he moved to banjo.

Pete Seeger started college at Harvard, but two years later, he lost his scholarship after joining the Young Communist League. He then went on the road again, joining folksinger Woody Guthrie, who wrote “This Land Is Your Land,” singing, riding the rails and hitchhiking to get around.  For several years during the Great Depression Pete Seeger survived by singing folk songs at union rallies, in bars, cafés, and on the streets of towns all over the United States.

In 1949, Pete Seeger was invited to sing at a benefit concert in Peekskill, New York, for the Civil Rights Congress.  The featured singer was Paul Robeson, a famous black actor and singer, who was also a Communist. This was a time when many people believed that anyone who was a Communist, or even believed in things like unions or civil rights, was a danger to the United States. Thousands of people attended the concert to show their support for civil rights.  Seeger, who came to the concert with his wife and young kids, sang a song he had recently written, “If I Had a Hammer.”  The concert went well.  When it was over, however, the police herded everybody onto a small back road, where an angry mob lined up and threw rocks at the people who had attended or performed at the concert.   Hundreds of people were injured, and Pete and his family barely escaped with their lives.  None of the rock-throwers were ever arrested.

The Peekskill Riots have a direct connection to my family.  My great-aunt Esther was actually at the Peekskill concert and had rocks thrown at the car she was in as she was leaving the concert.  She was in an old car without windows, and, to keep from being hit by rocks, she and her friends held blankets up to the sides of the car, hoping that the rocks being thrown would bounce back.

Song link:  The Peekskill Story 

After years of barely surviving as a folksinger, Pete Seeger became nationally famous when he helped start the musical group the Weavers in 1948.  They first played locally in New York City, but when the songs “Tzena Tzena Tzena” and “Goodnight, Irene” were released, they instantly rose to fame. The Weavers also wrote and played many protest songs, including “If I Had a Hammer” and “Wasn’t That a Time,” and some members were former Communists or what was called  “fellow travelers,” who believed in some of the same things that Communists did, such as organized labor and racial equality.  Because of this, despite their popularity, the Weavers often had trouble getting work. Pete Seeger left the Weavers in the late fifties, after the rest of the group agreed to do a commercial for a cigarette company.

Song Link:  Wasn’t That a Time:

From the 1940s to the 1960s the U.S feared that Communists wanted to overthrow the United States government. Congress set up the House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate Communist influence in the United States. If a witness was unwilling to name Communists for the committee, he or she was put on a “blacklist,” which basically meant that no one would hire the person. Many famous artists were blacklisted, including Paul Robeson, Charlie Chaplin, and Leonard Bernstein.

In 1955, Pete Seeger was called to testify before the committee.  He could have refused to answer questions based on the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, but Seeger refused to name names because he felt “it was improper of the committee to ask such questions.” He did offer to play some of his songs for the committee, but they refused the offer.

Because Seeger refused to answer the committee’s questions, he was convicted of contempt of Congress, and sentenced to two years in prison.  The conviction was eventually overturned, but Pete’s ethical stand against the committee caused him to be blacklisted from most major television and radio shows and high-profile concert halls.  During that period, Pete criss-crossed the country, playing at schools,  universities and summer camps, barely earning a living and spending months at a time away from his family.

My family also has someone who was blacklisted.  In the 1950s my great-uncle Buddy was a doctor for the government.  He was told that in order to keep his job he had to take a loyalty oath to the United States, which he refused to do.  He had trouble finding another job, and decided to take a job in London for several years because of the political situation in the United States.

Pete Seeger was always involved in the civil rights struggle, and was friendly with Martin Luther King, Jr., who he met in the mid-fifties.  In fact, it was Pete Seeger who popularized the song “We Shall Overcome and it soon became one of the anthems of the civil rights movement.

During the early sixties, Seeger sang frequently at civil rights demonstrations, southern churches and voter registration drives, including the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Whenever the march stopped he would go around looking for song lyrics from the marchers who were singing for freedom.

Song link: We Shall Overcome

Pete Seeger was also an environmentalist. In the mid-1960s, after reading Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, Seeger became concerned about how polluted the Hudson River had become.  The big industries were dumping all sorts of chemicals in the Hudson, which endangered many species of fish. Pete Seeger wanted to do something that would make people aware of how dirty the river had become.  He came up with the idea of building a sailing sloop that would travel up and down the Hudson, bringing public attention to the pollution and raising funds to clean up the river.  People thought he was crazy because no Hudson River sloop had been built for almost a hundred years.  But somehow he was able to raise the funds, and The Clearwater was launched in 1969. The crew was made up mainly of musicians who had never sailed before, so they had to learn how.

The Clearwater has been a great success.  Now the Hudson River is much cleaner than it used to be. The project inspired people and made them realize that the river is not a trashcan.

My family also cares a lot about the environment.  When my mom was in college, she participated in a number of protests against nuclear power plants. My immediate family attended New York’s huge march against climate change in 2014, and last fall, my parents and I took a ride on The Clearwater, helping to hoist the sails, singing sea chanties and learning about the river.

Song Links:

My Dirty Stream


Pete Seeger was also a pacifist and didn’t approve of the Vietnam War, because he believed that humans shouldn’t fight each other. He wrote anti-war songs and spent a lot of time singing at various anti-war rallies.

His most famous anti-war song was called “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” The song doesn’t mention Vietnam but it symbolized it. The “Big Muddy” is a river that stands for the war and the song compares being stuck in the river with not being able to get out of the war.  The song also implies that Lyndon Johnson, the president who involved the U.S. in the war, was a “big fool,” in the words of the song.

Seeger was originally scheduled to sing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on TV, his first major network appearance after the blacklist was over.  But the network got nervous about criticizing the president and cut the song from the show.

Pete Seeger also wrote “Bring’em Home” in direct response to the Vietnam War. In it, he says, “I may be right I may be wrong but I got a right to sing this song.” Pete Seeger believed this no matter what and kept singing even when others tried to shame him.

My family was also involved in anti-Vietnam War activity.  My grandpa Jack took my uncles Jon and Dan to one of the biggest anti-war rallies ever held in Washington, D.C. When my mom’s cousin Andy was a teenager in the 1960s, he brought a lawsuit against the government, arguing that the Vietnam War draft was unconstitutional because it drafted men and not women, that it legalized slavery, and taught people to commit war crimes.

Song Links:

Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

Bring ‘Em Home

Pete Seeger was a man who spoke his mind with music. He didn’t give in to peer pressure, and he was always determined to back up his beliefs. He was a great folksinger and a true American, and never gave up expressing himself and reaching out to people, even though he was blacklisted. I look up to him because I want to have the ability to stick with what I believe as well. Also, I admire him for using his talent to influence people. Pete Seeger valued the Earth, speaking up for what’s right and using his freedom as an American. These are qualities that I value and will continue to hold deeply.

Pete Seeger died on January 27, 2014, but his songs and ideals are everlasting.

As he once said, “A good song reminds us what we’re fighting for.”