Why a Nobel Peace Prize for Pete?
Pete Seeger is an ambassador for Peace and Social Justice and has been over the course of his 88-year lifetime. Using his prowess as a musician he worked to engage other people, from all walks of life and across generations, in causes to build a better and more civilized world: His work shows up wherever you look in the history of labor solidarity, growth of mass effort to end the Vietnam war, ban of nuclear weapons, work for international diplomacy, support of the Civil Rights Movement, for cleaning up the Hudson River and for environmental responsibility in general. Pete knit the world together with songs from China, the Soviet Union, Israel, Cuba, South Africa and Republican Spain. We learned that Crispus Attucks, born a slave, was the first man to die at the opening of the Revolutionary War, that the Farmer-Labor party in the mid-west had a socialist philosophy that lasted well into the 20th century, we learned that anti-slavery movements were often inspired by songs that indicated a map of escape, such as "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd," he popularized many of the IWW songs that helped in CIO organizing, and spread the Civil Rights Movement through promoting the SNCC Freedom Singers and making songs such as "We Shall Overcome," known all over the world.
When subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in August of 1955, at the height of the McCarthy period, Pete defended himself on the basis of the First Amendment, the right of an American citizen to free association, not the Fifth Amendment, protection against self incrimination. When he was boycotted from earning a living and practicing his craft on a national scale Pete appeared at union meetings, summer camps, Jr. High Schools, High Schools, and Colleges. His pay at times was as little as $5, but his value was priceless!
Pete also had his mentors: among them Paul Robeson, who said: "The Artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery..." It is time that a cultural worker receives the acknowledgement that, as Bertolt Brecht points out, "Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it." The cultural workers who know the power of the arts for social and political change, also know how difficult it is to gain recognition for cultural creation without either trivializing the art or somehow qualifying for designation of "high art" by an elite. Pete Seeger always held to the principals that people's music is not only "good art" but is representational art through music. That reality often refers to the conditions of exploitation and oppression that were apparent to formally uneducated folk. Thus "folk music" was not cute or quaint or obsolete, but through Pete, a living, vibrant form of culture.
Pete is again the Pied Piper of an historic environmental movement. When I was a child in New York City the Hudson River was an open sewer, GE alone pumped a million pounds of PCB's into it. Pete developed the idea for the Sloop Clearwater, modeled after Hudson fishing vessels in the 19th century when the river supplied fresh fish for people from Albany to Manhattan; he suggested having song festivals along the river banks to bring attention to cleaning up the river. Of course the idea was derided by everybody except those who knew Pete; he said, "You can't expect people to fight for a cleaner river until they learn to love it." People learned to love the idea that there were things they could do to clean the river. They pitched in, they cleaned the river, now there is a floating pool where children can swim and the Shad and Sturgeon are edible again. In a segment of the otherwise brutal sitcom Law and Order on CBS a character says, "The Hudson River's clean now, thanks to Pete Seeger!"
Culture, in essence, means to honor our forbears. In the words of the Eastern European writer Milan Kundera: "the struggle for people's power is the struggle for memory and against forgetting". Pete's talent, sense of decency, and inalterable belief in, as Anne Franke said, that, "at heart, people are basically good", were uniquely his, but he has never been alone in his work; the support of his wife Toshi and his family gave him the opportunity to be all he could be. We all stand on Pete Seeger's shoulders in a manner of speaking. We share Pete Seeger as a "father" of cultural, social, and political movements, as much as we share our parental DNA.
It is time that cultural work receives the recognition that the arts have great influence and global reach, that it is not only a medium of entertainment but of education, compassion and action. It is the desire of the committee that Pete Seeger be recognized as a beacon of integrity and principle in a time, and in a country, more defined by the absence of those qualities than by their honor.
Eleanor Walden, 2007