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Pete Seeger: the power of singing to promote social justice

By Barry S. Levy and Victor W. Sidel

“That song really sticks with you!”

The speaker was the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1957, on his way to a speaking engagement in Kentucky. The song was “We Shall Overcome.” He had heard it the day before from Pete Seeger at the Highlander Center in Tennessee. There Seeger had, a decade before, learned the song — most likely derived from an old gospel song that became a labor union song by the early 1900s.

Thanks mainly to Pete Seeger, who recently died at the age of 94, “We Shall Overcome” eventually “went viral” – long before we had a phrase to describe that phenomenon. The Civil Rights Movement adopted the song as its anthem. And, in 1965, a US President from the Deep South exclaimed before a joint session of Congress on voting legislation: “We shall overcome!”

Folk singer Pete Seeger entertaining at the opening of the Washington labor canteen in 1944. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt pictured in center. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Songs have the power to move people, more than words alone. Teaching people songs – and singing them together – can move people emotionally, socially, and politically. Seeger knew the power of singing to move people to help bring about progressive social change.

For almost seven decades he did just that. He sang – and had people sing along with him – to rally support for labor unions, for the Civil Rights Movement, for ending the Vietnam War, for eliminating nuclear weapons, and for addressing environmental hazards.

Many of the songs that he sang were derived from the Bible, traditional rural American folk music, or the musical culture of other peoples and countries. He used singing to teach, to inspire, and to build community. And he used singing to help build social movements. Asked how he would like to be remembered, he replied: “He made up songs to try and persuade people to do something.” Indeed he did, and very effectively.

Seeger optimistically saw that small actions can contribute to a large social movement. In an interview in 2004 on the radio program “Democracy Now!” with Amy Goodman, he paraphrased a parable from 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 in 2008. Photo by Dan Tappan 2008. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Seeger realized that having audiences — often made up of students or young children — join him in singing had the potential to make members of those audiences commit, or affirm commitment, to social causes: “In each of my concerts there are some old songs which you and I have sung together many times before, but which can always stand another singing. Like another sunrise, or another kiss, this also is an act of reaffirmation.”

And finally, Seeger saw singing as a unifying force that can remind us of our shared humanity. “Our songs are, like you and me, the product of a long, long human chain, and even the strangest ones are distantly related to each other, as we all are. Each of us can be proud to be a link in this chain.”

He elaborated on this concept in a recent PBS movie about his life, entitled Pete Seeger: The Power of Song:

“Once upon a time, wasn’t singing a part of everyday life as much as talking, physical exercise, and religion? Our distant ancestors, wherever they were in this world, sang while pounding grain, paddling canoes, or walking long journeys. Can we begin to make our lives once more all of a piece? Finding the right songs and singing them over and over is a way to start. And when one person taps out a beat, while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.”

Barry S. Levy, M.D., M.P.H., and Victor W. Sidel, M.D., are co-editors of the recently published second edition of Social Injustice and Public Health as well as two editions each of the books War and Public Health and Terrorism and Public Health. They are both past presidents of the American Public Health Association. Dr. Levy is an Adjunct Professor of Public Health at Tufts University School of Medicine. Dr. Sidel is Distinguished University Professor of Social Medicine Emeritus at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein Medical College and an Adjunct Professor of Public Health at Weill Cornell Medical College. Read their previous OUPblog articles.

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  1. […] Seeger died recently at the age of 94. Here is a blog article about his life and music.  His most famous song is probably We Shall […]

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