Pete Seeger dies as poverty raises its head in US politics
by Ronni Lamont
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To reflect on the life and times of the songwriter/folk singer Pete Seeger, who died on 27 January, the eve of the 2014 State of the Union address by President Barack Obama.
Preparation and materials
- Download a video of Pete Seeger singing one of his well-known songs: ‘If I had a hammer’, ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’, ‘Turn turn turn’.
- You could also download part of President Obama’s speech to play as the students enter.
- Tuesday, 28 January was an important day for Barack Obama, the President of the United States of America. His State of the Union speech laid out his hopes, dreams, and plans for his final two years in office. Pre-emptive news reports said that his focus was to be on the inequality that we see all around us in the Western world, especially in the USA, where the gap between rich and poor is continuing to grow.
- That morning, the death was announced of Pete Seeger, aged 94.
- You may not be aware of who Pete Seeger was and what he did, but you may well have sung some of his songs, possibly in your primary school assemblies.
How many of you recognise this song?
Play a short excerpt of ‘If I had a hammer’, followed by ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ and then ‘Turn turn turn’, or
Ask the students how many have sung these songs?
- Pete Seeger was in the professional music business for sixty years. If you’ve seen the new Coen brothers film Inside Llewyn Davies, you’ll be aware of how important the folk music scene was in 1960s America and, later on, here and across the Western world. Pete Seeger was there, writing songs of protest and working his way across the USA, singing in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed and with minorities as they struggled together.
- If this sounds like left-wing propaganda, that was what he did. He stood out against nuclear weapons, the war in Vietnam, was an early environmental campaigner, and was ‘blacklisted’ in the 1950s for his left-wing stance. This made it difficult for him to be seen on TV, and so he remained part of the background, rather than achieving the celebrity that he might otherwise have gained.
- It was being invited to sing at president Obama’s first pre-inauguration concert that brought him back to public awareness, although his songs had never really gone away.
- On the day that his death was announced, President Obama gave a speech focused on the poverty that many experience in the USA, and the need to close the gap between rich and poor. He was the first president to do so since the 1960s, when President Johnson described poverty as a ‘scourge’.
- So we come full circle: the folk singer who sang of poverty and the need for a more egalitarian society would have been standing full square behind the president as he articulated his plans for the next year. As it is, his death and reflection upon his life might bring into even sharper focus the need for inequality to be examined, and for strategies to be laid down that will lift those who are struggling out of their situation.
Time for reflection
Pete Seeger lived his life in the background – despite his evident talent and ability – holding true to what he believed in and working towards achieving justice for those who didn’t have a voice.
(For church schools
Pete Seeger was following in Jesus’ footsteps. Jesus lived and worked with the poor, and stood by them. He asked far more questions concerning the attitudes of those with money than he ever did about sexual habits! Jesus repeatedly said how hard it was for rich people to ‘enter the Kingdom of God’.)
We also live in a country where there is a big gap between the rich and the poor. Governments struggle to drive out inequality, but it is an uphill struggle.
While we cannot effect change on a large scale, we can help locally and within our local community.
Could we fund raise for our local food bank?
Could we ask our families to invest with the local credit union?
And personally, do we pick on students who show signs of poverty – not having the latest phone or tablet? Not wearing the latest fashions or the right labels?
How can we be more accepting of those people who come from different backgrounds from ourselves, and so enrich our experience at school?
Play one of the songs listed above.
Let’s listen to Pete Seeger now and think about how his message could change each one of us.
‘If I had a hammer’, ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ and ‘Turn turn turn’ by Pete Seeger