Pete Seeger enters 9th decade as an activist

By Chris Talbott

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Oct. 24 2011 1:22 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this Oct. 21, 2011 file photo, Pete Seeger, age 92, center, joins Occupy Wall Street by marching after a concert at Symphony space to Columbus Circle in New York. Protesters sang his songs on the march and in Columbus Circle he sang his songs with accompaniment from other musicians, notably his grandson, Tao RodrÍguez-Seeger, far left.

Stephanie Keith, Associated Press

Tao Rodriguez-Seeger was halfway through Friday night's march down Broadway to support the Occupy Wall Street movement, a guitar strapped over his shoulder and his grandfather Pete Seeger at his side. Suddenly a New York City police officer stepped from the crowd and grabbed his elbow.

"Are you Tao Seeger?" the officer asked tersely. "Was this your idea? Did you think of this?"

Rodriguez-Seeger, a New Orleans-based musician, was certain arrest was imminent. The officer reached for his hand and he readied for the cuffs. Then something unexpected happened.

"He shook my hand and said, 'Thank you, thank you. This is beautiful,'" Rodriguez-Seeger said. "That really did it for me. The cops recognized what we were about."

That moment affirmed the message that his grandfather has preached tirelessly across nine decades. The causes and movements have changed from time to time over 75 years, but his message has always been the same: Song is the key to understanding and change.

"Music does something to you," Rodriguez-Seeger said. "It can cross rivers of meaning that entire books can't get across. ... You take any one of Bob Dylan's songs and you get to the heart of the matter where it took Homer volumes and volumes of books to get to the same point."

Today, Pete Seeger is approaching the far end of a life lived walking hand in hand with American history, often at odds with the government that runs things. It failed to shut him up. The courts had no chance. Changing tastes and values? Never. Even time seems to have taken a step back in deference to the musical rabble-rouser's resolve and determination.

This time around, the 92-year-old Seeger was carried along by two canes, not the sound of his banjo. But his presence, in a crowd of nearly 1,000 with guitar players and chanting sign-holders and police swirling around, gave the new protest movement something it seemed to lack over the last month.

A momentary clarity, longtime friend Guy Davis thinks. A purpose. A direction.

"It's his humanity," Davis said.

Seeger's voice first rose in the 1930s against Hitler. He met Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax and Lead Belly, and began to advocate for migrant workers and miners in the 1940s. He stared down Sen. Joseph McCarthy and endured a blacklisting he simply shrugged away. In middle age, he was a key figure in the folk revival that produced Dylan and, later, the protests that helped shape modern America.

Seeger still takes delight in lending his presence to important things, even if his voice doesn't carry like it used to. He found himself attracted to the studied inorganization of the Wall Street protesters.

"Be wary of great leaders," he said Sunday in a phone interview full of songs and stories when asked what he identifies with in the Occupy Wall Street message. "Hope that there are many, many small leaders."

Other than the canes and snowy beard, Seeger hasn't changed much since he began singing out against fascism in the mid-1930s after dropping out of Harvard in frustration.

"The sociology professor said, 'Don't think that you can change the world. The only thing you can do is study it,'" Seeger said. "... But this was 1937 and Hitler had taken power. He was murdering people and was ready to go to war."

You could say Seeger inherited his activism. His great-great grandfather came to America seeking self-determination after reading the Declaration of Independence. His great-grandfather was an abolitionist. His father was a socialist who spoke out against World War I.

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