Last week, Pete Seeger passed away at the age of 94. Seeger, an iconic American folk singer and banjo player, was also an activist who used music as a means of bringing people together to fight for the causes he believed in.
He began with playing in the Almanac Singers with Woodie Guthrie in the 1940s and helped to popularize folk music with The Weavers in the 1950s. On his own, Seeger kept playing folk music to audiences all over the world for decades, inspiring younger generations to keep this style of music alive.
Seeger was among the first to join the civil rights movement and take part in protests – most notably, he introduced the use of the song “We Shall Overcome” to inspire protesters. He was also a fixture in the peace movement against the Vietnam War and gave us songs like “The Big Muddy” to drive home the message that the war was wasting the lives of thousands of young Americans.
One famous story about Seeger, related in his PBS documentary, tells how a young Vietnam veteran, angry over Seeger’s anti-war efforts and traumatized by the death of many friends in Vietnam, attended one of Seeger’s concerts with the intention of killing the folk singer. Instead, Seeger’s songs and sentiments moved the veteran so much that his anger and confusion was dispelled. The man came backstage after the show to speak with Seeger, who sat down with him and sang some songs with him. Afterwards, the man told Seeger that he “felt clean” because his anger was gone.
With music, Seeger was able to “interrupt” the spread of this man’s violent experiences before he spread them further. His actions remind me of the way in which Cure Violence workers use a variety of methods to cool down tense situations and mediate conflicts – different situations and different methods than Seeger’s–but with the same goal of dispelling anger and defusing hostile intentions.
The life of Pete Seeger also reminds us that music can inspire people to turn against violence. Music was a regular feature in the anti-war movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Today it is less common, but it still happens – witness the piano man who stopped violent protests in the Ukraine earlier this year (see picture below).