When my older sister and I were young, our parents used to play this one record that I liked to try to sing along to: “Pete Seeger at Carnegie Hall.” I loved all the songs on that album: “Little Boxes,” and “We Shall Overcome,” and “Guantanamera,” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” I can still remember Pete Seeger’s spoken introduction to “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus,” when he talks about the violent measures taken against civil rights protesters. I can remember trying to memorize the words to “Little Boxes,” and in the process learning how to be critical of the assumptions undergirding middle class suburban culture, which probably helped lay the intellectual groundwork for my studies of critical theory and Marxism about ten years later, when I was in college. I had already learned from my parents how to be critical of what I was taught in school, but listening to “What Did You Learn in School Today?” made that seem fun and mischievous and delightful, and a few years later when I started working with children the memory of that song gave me a standard by to judge my own efforts as an educator.
Pete Seeger’s greatest strength was his ability to sing for children and young people. He was a teacher as much as, or more than, a musician. When he sang, he taught about big concepts like justice and human rights and racism and social inequality — he taught all these big concepts in a way that a six year old could understand them. His infectious songs and style of singing ensured that the children and young people who heard him sing would remember the lessons he taught for a long, long time. Continue reading “Pete Seeger: a brief appreciation”