“Realize that little things lead to bigger things. . . . there’s a wonderful parable in the New Testament: The sower scatters seeds. Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stamped on, and they don’t grow. Some fall on the rocks, and they don’t grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground, and they grow and multiply a thousandfold. Who knows where some good little thing that you’ve done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of.” —Pete Seeger, on Democracy Now 
Let Us Now Praise Him and Thank Him
There is so much to admire about Pete Seeger , who died this week at 94, that one hardly knows where to begin. “We Shall Overcome,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”—there are so many great songs he wrote, or refreshed and arranged for popular use, always inviting the audience to sing along, that it is difficult, and not at all cheering, to imagine what a different and poorer world this would have been without Pete Seeger and his music (the two are indistinguishable). Think of all the protests, demonstrations, sit-ins, teach-ins, and celebrations those songs and others have accompanied.
We admire Pete Seeger for his activism, generosity, his indomitable optimism, his ever-open mind, and sheer energy. For many of us, he was an old man (and a very accomplished, legendary one) for so many years that we could be forgiven for asking, upon hearing of his death, Oh, was he still alive?
He was indeed, and he performed as recently as 2009 at Barack Obama’s first inaugural celebrations, singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” with Bruce Springsteen and his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger at the Lincoln Memorial (see photo below), and at an Occupy Wall Street concert in 2011 when he was a young man of 92. His wife, Toshi-Aline Ohta Seeger , died in 2013, just days before the couple’s 70th anniversary. (The picture at right shows the Seegers in 1992.)
Pete Seeger knew everyone and played with everyone, from Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie to Paul Robeson, and Bob Dylan, to Emmylou Harris and David Byrne and members of the Jefferson Airplane. In the 1930s he collected folk songs with Alan Lomax and traveled and sang with Woody Guthrie. He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 50s (including for Eleanor Roosevelt and others at a racially integrated party at a CIO hall in Washington in 1944), and sang for civil rights and antiwar demonstrations in the 1950s and 60s, and for environmental causes from the 1970s to the 2010s. He sang with the Almanac Singers (including Woody Guthrie) in the 1940s and the Weavers in the 50s. In the late 1950s he refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and narrowly avoided being sent to prison for contempt of Congress.
“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.” —Pete Seeger, testimony  to House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on Aug. 18, 1955
He was picketed by the John Birch Society and other right-wing groups, which boosted ticket sales, and for many years he was blacklisted from performing on TV because in the 1930s he had been a member of the Young Communist League. He did, however, eventually manage to perform his antiwar song “Waist-Deep in the Big Muddy” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968, after it was initially censored by CBS. As the New York Times obituary  explains:
As the United States grew divided over the Vietnam War, Mr. Seeger wrote “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” an antiwar song with the refrain “The big fool says to push on.” He performed the song during a taping of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in September 1967, his return to network television, but it was cut before the show was broadcast. After the Smothers Brothers publicized the censorship, Mr. Seeger returned to perform the song for broadcast in February 1968.
Dave Van Ronk, the Brooklyn-born folk and blues singer on whom the Coen brothers’ new film Inside Llewyn Davis is (loosely) based, wrote of his admiration for Seeger in the late 1950s:
I think that the man is really great, in almost every sense of the word. . . . Artists of Seeger’s genre are hard to come by in this day and age. He is, in my opinion, taste and honesty personified, and a Seeger concert is a lesson which no singer of folksongs can afford to miss. When he speaks on the stage, his voice rarely rises above a conversational level, and yet he is heard. There is no phony upstaging at all. As a matter of fact, “stage presence” of the Broadway variety is entirely absent. Seeger does not act; he is.
I think that this is the key to his entire greatness. The man has no need to act in order to establish contact with his audience. He genuinely respects the people who are listening to him and refuses to insult their sensibilities with insincere theatrics. . . .
He is not “preserving” folklore but living it, and so are we, and he knows it. He neither sings up nor down to his material but with it. And there is no dichotomy between the performer and the content of his songs. . . . When he sings, all of him is involved. Which is another lesson that many singers of folksongs could profit by.
—from The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir  (pp. 67–68)
For more about Pete Seeger’s exemplary life of “defiant optimism” in music and activism, we recommend the following • New York Times obituary, “Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94 ,” and “Pete Seeger, a Folk Revivalist Who Used His Voice to Bring Out a Nation’s ” • Democracy Now’s special report  • Amy Goodman’s “Pete Seeger: Troubadour of Truth and Justice ” • John Nichols’s obituary in The Nation, “Pete Seeger: This Man Surrounded Hate and Forced It to Surrender ” • and this affectionate appreciation  by Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo.
The photograph below shows Seeger performing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” at the “We Are One: Opening Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial,” with grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger (left) and Bruce Springsteen in January 2009 (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster). Below that, Pete Seeger, 92, in 2011 joining Occupy Wall Street by marching from a concert at Symphony Space to Columbus Circle (photo by Marcus Yam for The New York Times).