The legendary folk musician and activist Pete Seeger died Monday at the age of 94. He left a legacy of indelible music and social change. His memorable songs and his unifying spirit course through the heart of modern music, and influenced the current nu-folk movement straight through to arena rock stars like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Wilco, and countless others.
Seeger's songs were often simple but carried enduring, hopeful messages of togetherness, tolerance, resistance, and change that spoke to one generation after the next. A celebrated number like "Turn! Turn! Turn!" -- which Seeger adapted from Bible verses drawn from the Book of Ecclesiastes -- served as a counterculture activist anthem (and a No. 1 hit for the Byrds) in the '60s, but the song still resonates today.
Today it seems inconceivable for a number-one pop hit to feature lyrics that come directly from scripture, but Seeger had a rare gift of drawing on different sources and themes in his work, all while unifying disparate segments of society under his just cause. "Turn! Turn! Turn!" wasn't a naive, feeble hippie anthem, either.
It was full of a clear-eyed understanding of the fitful, violent times themselves -- "A time to kill...a time of war...a time of hate..." -- but those aggressive actions were given a quick corollary that we should all strive toward instead -- "A time to heal...a time of peace...a time of love...." And the subtle but powerful inclusion of exclamation points in the title was a pointed, insistent call to action for everyone to enact a change and make a difference, and a statement that the era of submissive compliance was a part of the past.
This was a message that carried through much of Seeger's work as well as his distinguished life -- that we shouldn't ever be blind to the ills and tragedies in the world, but to also be determined that there is a better way to live and a more compassionate way to interact with your fellow man. He knew that music was his best way of getting that benevolent message across to people, and he continued to share his gifts for the better part of his long, extraordinary life.
In addition to the Byrds' hit version, "Turn! Turn! Turn!" was also recorded by Jan & Dean, the Seekers, Nina Simone, Dolly Parton, and numerous others, as well as showing up in the live sets of current artists like Bruce Springsteen, Tori Amos, and Belle and Sebastian, who opened their shows with the song at their live performances in the Pacific Northwest on 9/11 and the days following the tragedy. [page]
Seeger brought communities together through the power of song, and these folks will continue to be guided forward not only by the messages within his timeless music, but in his kind, compassionate nature. Seeger said in 2009, "My job is to show folks there's a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet." Pete realized that folk songs, or any popular song for that matter, had the ability to get stuck in people's heads and change how they viewed the world. But he was far more interested in changing minds through his work than making a substantial profit off of it, and routinely used whatever attention was shown to him or his music as a way of informing the masses about the causes he believed in, not in making a quick buck.
Anyone feeling disenfranchised can identify with the strength and courage of "We Shall Overcome." Anyone who feels like their voice isn't being heard can find comfort and inspiration in the words of "If I Had a Hammer."
Pete Seeger never quite saw the idyllic time of peace that he wrote about at the end of "Turn! Turn! Turn!" -- and perhaps never fully expected to -- but his words and lyrics serve as a guide to get where we're going, while reminding us all of the fight that it took to get here.
The song boldly carries the intense weight of loss, as well as an enduring power to heal, and still resonates powerfully today, more than six decades after the number was written. Seeger's music helped him forge lifelong friendships with artists and musicians across the globe, and anyone who has ever been touched by his songs will continue to be influenced and impacted by his work long after he is gone.