Updated: Jan 27, 2020
On this date six years ago, folk singer/activist Pete Seeger died, the night before President Barack Obama's sixth State of the Union address. The day after, I wrote the following piece. I thought it appropriate to revisit it.
It’s interesting that Pete Seeger died on the eve of a State of the Union address. Let me explain.
Since I was a kid, I’ve thought the State of the Union was at best boring, and at its worst, REALLY boring and over the top (more so in recent administrations, with the introduction of applause meters, real-time audience trackers, standing ovations, opposition party reaction and the like).
The short story is, I don’t like this speech, and I'd doubt I ever will, regardless of who’s in office or what bells and whistles I’m offered by my network of choice.
But then again, I don’t really like politics “for politics’ sake” either, so maybe I’m not the target audience. It's also possible I’m still bitter about losing my one and only political campaign, the Student Council Presidential race of 1978 at St. Henry’s Catholic School.
As a good student, quarterback of the flag football team and shooting guard for the basketball squad (not to mention a finalist in the school-wide Checker tournament the previous spring), I figured I had name recognition among our 185-member student body, which spanned grades one through eight. (I was told early on in the campaign to NEVER underestimate the power of the first-grade voters to swing an election.)
In addition to pandering to the needs and wants of the younger voters, I was sure the posters I made were going to cinch the win. I used the tactic where each letter of my last name represented a word (HAZNAW = Honest; Ambitious; Zealous; Nice; Attentive; Well-meaning).
After all the votes were cast, I lost to Katie Caine, who admittedly also had name recognition and by all accounts ran a solid campaign. (Frankly, I think I lost some of the younger voters because they didn't know what “zealous” meant. If they had, I truly believe it would have been me in a landslide. But that’s all water under the bridge now, and besides, do you know how difficult it was to find a solid, inspiring "Z" word?)
In short, it’s possible my ambivalence toward politics grew from that failed campaign, though I did dabble in student council again in high school, but not to satisfy any political aspirations; rather, it simply allowed me to get out of class a couple times a month for meetings in the school auditorium to discuss important initiatives like the “Winter Turnabout" dance or the spring scrap metal drive to raise money for other student council activities. By the way, you could hold a gun to my head and I wouldn’t be able to name a single student council sponsored activity, except, of course, the “Winter Turnabout" dance (also called the “Sadie Hawkins Dance” in some districts).
Anyway, back Pete Seeger. Pete was one of the most influential folk singers in history. He was also vocal and passionate about causes that he believed in. He spoke about them, sang about them and acted on them.
Interesting, isn’t it? I mean, take out the words “sang about them” out of the above sentence, and you'd have a pretty solid definition of what you'd want a politician to be, wouldn't you? It works for me, anyway.
Unfortunately, that's not always what we get from our elected officials. I don’t doubt politicians believe in things. And I don’t doubt their passion (most of the time). And sometimes, they act on the things they truly believe in and are passionate about. I just don’t always like the way they do it or the motives behind those ways.
And the "show" that is the State of the Union to me is an example of what I don’t want or need to see from my government or the people that work in it, whether it’s the Democrats, Republicans or those few Independents wandering around out there. (Frankly, we need more of those people, if you ask me.)
When I see the government, and I listen to something like the State of the Union, I see and hear people trying to make big changes, pass big legislation, give themselves big pats on the back and receive big standing ovations. (Not sure there's such a thing as a "small" standing ovation.) What I don’t see is one group of people (the politicians) truly taking care of their people, and working all the steps it takes to move forward and make the right changes ... for the right reasons.
But Pete Seeger did. He didn’t care about political parties (though it’s no mystery on what side he stood), and he said and sang what he believed in. And then, he stood behind his words, mobilized his friends and worked with people – real people, even people who didn't agree with him – to help make us aware of things like pollution, racism, labor problems and other injustices. And he did it with intelligent words and lyrics, a soft-spoken demeanor, a banjo and a smile. He was more than just a singer, a member of The Weavers (who by the way, might just be the best folk ensemble ever), a banjo player or an activist. He was a man of belief, passion and action.
A true politician.
New York Times obituary writer Joe Parales said it best when he called Seeger, "the singer, folk-song collector and songwriter who spearheaded an American folk revival and spent a long career championing folk music as both a vital heritage and a catalyst for social change.”
Losing Pete Seeger means this world has one less Honest, Ambitious, Zealous, Nice, Attentive, Well-meaning person on it. But hopefully, his music, his influence and the examples he set will live on.
Come to think of it, I didn’t deserve to win that ’78 Student CouncilPresidential Election. I didn't have the chops to hold office, couldn't live up to all the adjectives "symbolized" by the letters in my name, and I’m fine with that. But hopefully there’s still time to live up to the standard ol’
Pete set in his 94 years on this rock.
Enjoy the State of the Union tonight if that’s your preference. I’m gonna listen to some folk music. So long Pete … and thank you for everything.
© 2014 David R. Haznaw