Yesterday, we lost a true legend although I doubt that he thought of himself as such. For those of us who came of age in the fifties and sixties, it is impossible to remember the world without Pete Seeger’s music. Whenever there was a hootenanny, a song fest, a music festival replete with banjoes plinking and guitars strumming, there was Pete Seeger. In fact, without Pete Seeger and his original group, the Weavers, folk music as an integral part of twentieth century culture might never have come to be.
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Pete Seeger, however, was much more than a singer: he was a storyteller, first and foremost; an environmentalist; a political activist; an advocate for the rights of all men. Moreover, he did not just stand for his principles; he went to jail for them and was blacklisted from performing because of his political associations.
I could make a long list of the hundreds of songs that Seeger recorded in his lifetime. I could make an even longer list of the “covers” that were recorded of his songs by Judy Collins, Buffy St. Marie, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and nearly every folk-connected musician of the time period.
However, I think it is more important to portray the multi-dimensional man through books about him and his causes. As you look at this list of books, somewhere in your mind, you will hear the plink-plink of a banjo, the strum of a guitar, and that familiar rusty voice singing We Shall Overcome. It will become an earworm, but one worth “listening” to as it evolves into a catalog of Seeger favorites.
Hudson River Journey: Images from Lake Tear in the Clouds to New York Harbor, photos by Hardie Truesdale and text by Joanne Michaels. Foreword by Pete Seeger.
Walking the Hudson: from the Battery to bear Mountain: the First Guide to Walking the First 56 Miles of the Hudson River Trail, by Cy Adler.
In the 1970s, the Hudson River was a chemical disaster. Fish and animals could not live in the river. The environment surrounding the river was being destroyed by pollution and chemical dumping. Seeger led the movement to clean up the river and make it available to people in New York as a recreational center, again. In 2002, he was honored for his work as an Environmental Hero. These books show you the reclaimed river and what Seeger worked so hard to save.
We Shall Overcome: The History of the Civil Rights Movement, by Reggie Finlayson.
Freedom Song: Young Voices and the Struggle for Civil Rights, by Mary C. Turck.
February is Black History Month, and it is particularly relevant that we remember the place that music held in the marches and demonstrations to the Civil Rights movement. Frequently, the songs sung were revived gospel and spiritual music that had a place in African American history. Always, at the front of the Civil Rights demonstrations were singers like Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Odetta, and Peter, Paul and Mary. These were the songs played and sung from the bridge in Selma, to the Reflecting Pool in front of the Washington Monument, to Washington Square in New York. The songs carried the message: we shall all be free.
Pete Seeger’s Storytelling Book, by Pete Seeger.
A gem of a book for any beginning or proficient storyteller. Not only does Seeger share his favorite tales and practiced storytelling techniques, he also ends the book with a wonderful chapter of story beginnings with no ends. The purpose of the chapter is to give young or new tellers a jumping off point to create their own stories. As Seeger reminds you, people don’t come to hear a story; they come to hear the storyteller. The important part of telling a tale is what the storyteller brings to the performance. This is a bible for new and developing storytellers which is becoming a lost art.
Some Friends to Feed: The Story of Stone Soup, by Pete Seeger and Paul Dubois Jacobs, with illustrations by Michael Hays.
You may have heard this story told by Marcia Brown or Heather Forrest (my personal favorite). It is a famous old tale of two itinerant soldiers wandering through a German village trying to cadge a meal from the unfriendly villages. When no one offers food, the soldiers use it as a lesson in sharing with your fellow man by making a broth out of stones and encouraging the villagers to share what they can for a community meal.
One Grain of Sand: A Lullaby, by Pete Seeger.
This is a quiet song to share with your child at bedtime. You will subtly reinforce the message that we live in a fragile world, one that needs to be protected, and that all of the Earth’s inhabitants are connected as one great family.
Abiyoyo, by Pete Seeger.
I have been shamelessly stealing this story from Mr. Seeger for years, and it is one of my favorite to tell. Set in an African village, it involves a young banjo-playing boy and his magician father. Together the two are regarded as village annoyances and driven from the village. (Here is a vocabulary word for everyone: ostracize. The boy and his father are ostracized, which means they had to go live at the edge of the village). However, when a mythological monster, Abiyoyo, comes to destroy the village, only the father and the boy have the secret to controlling him elevating them to heroes among the townspeople. This is a bit scary for the youngest readers, but a memorable and fun sing along for the teller to share.
Foolish Frog, by Pete Seeger.
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Another tell-and-sing story as kids learn the story of the frog from “way down South in the yankety yank, a bullfrog jumped from bank to bank” and the repetitive verse sung as various farm animals. Honestly, there isn’t much point to the story, but once you get the kids singing to tune, they’ll forget everything but the fun. It helps if you have a banjo or a ukulele to plink along with the song.
Turn, Turn, Turn: Words from Ecclesiastes Circa 250 BCE, translated into English in 1607, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin.
Beyond the Biblical reading of “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven,” there is the sheer beauty and poetry of this Biblical passage. Seeger set it to music and it has been sung by many artists, most notably Judy Collins and The Byrds in the 1960s. The pictorial interpretation in this edition is very special, dividing each verse into a circle which forces the reader to “turn, turn, turn” the page to appreciate the illustrations. Each circle is divided in half so that readers can compare and contrast the illustrations for, “A time to plant a time to sow, a time to laugh a time to weep, a time we may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing.” Of course, as a message of the time, the final verse is, “A time to love a time to hate, a time of war a time of peace, oh Lord, I pray it’s not too late.” The message continues to be relevant as the world never seems to learn the lesson of peace.
Pete Seeger: His Life in His Own Words, by Pete Seeger.
This is not for children, but tells, from the pen of the man, about his early life, his political involvement, his years on the blacklist which led him to the world of children’s performance, his environmental causes, and his joyous gift of making and sharing music with the world.
Of Pete Seeger, I can only say that he lived his life long and well, he fought for his causes with courage and conviction, and he sang his songs for all the world to hear. He will be remembered, and there’s little more that a man can ask of his life. So long, Mr. Seeger. It’s been good to know you.
Written by Lois Gross Rubin, Senior Children’s Librarian