For those of us who came of age in the 1960s, and I mean The Sixties, Pete Seeger was the generalissimo of what Tom Lehrer called the Folk Song Army. Wherever there was an injustice to be fought, a war to be combated, a union drive to be supported, Pete was out there with his 5-string banjo and his 12-string guitar, getting the assembled troops to sing along.
Unlike a lot of the prominent protest figures of the time, he had a good sense of humor, and he genuinely seemed to like people. His father was an ethnomusicologist, and he made himself the musical mouthpiece of the American ethnos. His sweetness of temper and lightness of touch made you want to get up on your feet and join the throng. And did he keep going! When Occupy Wall Street came along in 2011, there was the 92-year-old in Zuccotti Park.
Religiously, his roots were in Puritan New England. He wandered into atheism, then wandered back out, into a kind of pantheism. He was, appropriately enough, a Unitarian Universalist.
His enduring contribution to the American Religious Songbook is “Turn, Turn, Turn,” an adaptation of the beginning of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes (King James Version). The song was written in 1954, when the public began to become concerned about nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific. Besides the “turn, turn, turn” refrain, Seeger strategically added a rhyming bit of protest to the final stanza:
A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time to love, a time to hate
A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late
But it was the sense that life was about more than protest, the biblical author’s message that there really is a time for every purpose under Heaven, that seemed to capture the essence of the man. Two years ago, he performed it as a sing-along, with a few new verses at the end, and he had the audience still in the palm of his hand.