Folk artist Pete Seeger, 94, crossed paths with Jewish activists

Pete Seeger, the banjo-picking troubadour who sang for migrant workers, college students and star-struck presidents in a career that introduced generations of Americans to their folk music heritage, died Jan. 27 in New York. He was 94.

With his lanky frame, use-worn banjo and full white beard, Seeger was an iconic figure in folk music who outlived his peers. He performed with the great minstrel Woody Guthrie in his younger days and wrote or co-wrote “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” He spoke out against Hitler and nuclear power. A cheerful warrior, he typically delivered his broadsides with an affable air and his fingers poised over the strings of his banjo.

Pete Seeger in 2009 photo/ wikimedia commons

Nearly as much as the music he wrote and helped popularize, Seeger, who was not Jewish, will be remembered for his leftist politics: He supported the labor and civil rights movements, was an unabashed communist (with a small “c”) and opposed America’s wars. He was blacklisted for being a party member in the 1940s, indicted for contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in jail, though the conviction was overturned on appeal. But Seeger was never cowed, even as he grew frail. He performed with Bruce Springsteen at Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 and, when the Occupy protests broke out in 2011, Seeger, supporting himself with two canes, joined a protest march of nearly 40 blocks in New York City.

Inevitably, such loyalties led Seeger to cross paths with Jewish activists over the years, many of whom remembered him this week.

Rabbi Michael Lerner of Berkeley recalled when Seeger offered to perform at the first Tikkun conference in 1988. “Seeger understood that the kind of Judaism we espoused was rooted in the universalist and prophetic tradition that had led so many Jews to become deeply involved in the movements for peace and social justice — not the chauvinist nationalism that was becoming dominant in large sections of the organized Jewish community,” Lerner wrote.

Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center recalled a 1998 protest on the banks of the Hudson River in Beacon, N.Y., organized to draw attention to PCBs the General Electric Corp. was pouring into the river. Seeger, who lived in Beacon and was a lover of the river, joined the gathering, which took place on the seventh day of Sukkot.

“He thanked us for blessing the Hudson and confronting its poisoners,” Waskow wrote. “He said his voice was almost gone, but he could croak a version of  ‘Hinei Ma Tov u’Ma Nayyim,’ if we would do the singing for him. We did. He did.”

Also inevitably, perhaps, Seeger was drawn into the increasingly vitriolic debate over Israel. Despite his longtime support for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and his disgust at what he once called “monstrous” Israeli military actions against Palestinians, Seeger in 2010 declined to bow out of an online rally for peace in the Middle East, despite pressure from the boycott, divestments and sanctions movement.

“My religion is that the world will not survive without dialogue,” Seeger said at the time. “I would say to the Israelis and the Palestinians, if you think it’s terrible now, just think ahead 50 years to when the world blows itself up. It will get worse unless you learn how to turn the world around peacefully.”

Maybe it was his age and his familiarity with an Israel that preceded the occupation, but Seeger seemed capable of seeing beyond an Israel caricatured as just another outpost of Western imperialism.

Seeger first visited Israel in 1964 and spent time on Israeli kibbutzim — just the sort of collective communal enterprises he loved. In 1950, he and his band the Weavers recorded an English-language version of “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” a song composed in 1941 by Issachar Miron, a Polish refugee serving in the Jewish Brigade in British Mandate Palestine. The Weavers’ recording rose to No. 2 on the Billboard charts.

Recalling the significance of that recording, which introduced Israeli music to the American public at a critical time in the new nation’s history, Milken Archive of Jewish Music founder Lowell Milken said it was “a great example of the power of music not only to entertain but to bring people together.”

In 2000, Seeger and Miron released a new version of the song in English, Hebrew and Arabic. And just two years ago, he recorded a video for the Jewish retreat center Isabella Freedman that recalls the three questions posed by the Jewish sage Hillel.

“If I am not for myself, who will be?” Seeger says in the video. “If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? These seem to me three of the greatest questions that could possibly be asked … I suppose Jews in every country of the world teach it to their children, but I wish they would teach it to the other children in every country where they are.” — jta, ap & j.staff