PS – The Last Protest Singer

Rainow Warrior

“I thought if you had an acoustic guitar then it meant that you were a protest singer.”
Stephen Morrissey“Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs.”
Stephen Morrissey

Pete Seeger didn’t play much acoustic guitar, but he wrote a lot of protest songs. Seeger had the firm conviction that the purpose of music was to convey a message, and he stayed true to that conviction until his death last week at 94.

I came at Pete Seeger from the wrong end – I grew up listening not only to his friend Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads, but to Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Race. I thought (and still think) it was a great album, and it was one of Seeger’s most musical. At the time, I didn’t think much about the fact that the songs held political or social meaning – some songs did and some didn’t. I was just as happy listening to Gordon Lightfoot as I was to Pete Seeger. But that’s not to say Seeger’s lessons didn’t affect me. The infectious whistling of “Uncle Ho” led me to learn more about Ho Chi Minh and to ponder whether “If a man will stand for his own land, he’s got the strength of ten. ” (“Hell no, we won’t go! “)

I liked Rainbow Race for the beauty of the music, but we also owned the abbreviated cassette of We Shall Overcome, and that really was a protest record. Not all of it – it included songs like “I’m gonna mail myself to you”, but at heart it was music with a message, from the title track to “If you miss me at the back of the bus” to “Keep your eyes on the prize” to “I ain’t scared of your jail”. Pete Seeger made me wonder, at the age of 10, “What [I had learned] in school today”, and why it wasn’t quite what he was singing about. I may not have gone very deep with these thoughts, but they stuck with me.

In fact, it’s possible that Pete Seeger misled me. He was ‘old’, so what he was singing about was obviously old too – it was history. I was genuinely shocked when we first moved to the US to live and I learned that racism was still alive and well. How could that be, when committed people like Pete Seeger had been protesting against it for so long? It was an unpleasant but valuable lesson in human fallibility, and in the fact that passion and reason don’t win all arguments.

Pete Seeger knew that he didn’t always win, but he didn’t give up. Popular or unpopular, he plugged away at the causes he cared about. Maybe it was his unflagging optimism that kept him going; maybe it was deep faith that humanity would see reason after all – “And because I love you, I’ll give it one more try – to show my rainbow race it’s too soon to die. “

If there was ever a man who meant what he said, and said what he meant, it was Pete Seeger. But not only was he committed and consistent, from his youth to his death, he seems to have been a genuinely nice man as well. It’s rare to find someone so passionate and devoted, but still able to see beyond his own issues to the feelings of others. I’m distressed to see him gone. I’m disappointed there aren’t more like him now.

My causes aren’t all the same as Pete Seeger’s were. But I’ll take my cue from his life and believe that if we keep trying, change is not just possible, but happening – small, barely visible, but constant progress toward a better life for us all.


Words, words, words
by Pete Seeger Words, words, words
In my old Bible
How much of truth remains?
If I only understood them,
While my lips pronounced them,
Would not my life be changed?
Words, words, words
In Tom’s old Declaration
How much of truth remains?
If I only understood them,
While my lips pronounced them,
Would not my life be changed?Words, words, words
In my old songs and stories
How much of truth remains?
If I only understood them,
While my lips pronounced them,
Would not my life be changed?

Words, words, words
On cracked old pages
How much of truth remains?
If my mind could understand them,
And if my life pronounced them,
Would not this world be changed?

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