Pete Seeger’s shows were all about crowd participation. In his later years, this was a matter of necessity - after decades of singing loud and clear at countless protests, rallies and marches, he needed some help to carry those tunes. But Pete’s signature singalongs meant more than that. Collective thought and action were his guiding principles. He saw music as a way to bring people together for a greater good, and a room full of many singing together as one was an apt reflection of that ideal.
When I covered Pete’s 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden for my old employer in 2009, I was there as a reporter but also as a lifelong fan – someone who grew up singing his songs with the other kids at my progressive summer day camp. I joined my voice with 18,000 others on “Goodnight, Irene,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” “Turn, Turn Turn,” “Which Side Are You On?,” “Union Maid,” “Bring Them Home” and all the rest. It did my heart good to witness everyone in the Garden that night singing along for Pete and the values he stood for.
Well, almost everyone. I remember looking over in my row and seeing a prominent critic – I won’t name names – who spent the entire show just standing there, arms crossed, with a self-serious look on his face and no hint of music on his lips. It was apparent that he felt some professional obligation to keep himself separate from the emotion of the night. I realized right there that I never want to become the kind of journalist who positions himself that far outside of the experiences he writes about. What’s the point? If there’s one thing I’ll take away from Pete Seeger’s life, it’s that we’re all in this together, and the world works better when we don’t sequester ourselves from our fellow human beings. Today I’m proud that I sang along with Pete Seeger on that occasion and so many others, and I honestly feel kind of bad for anyone who denied him- or herself that joy.