Pete Seeger once gave union reporters a pep talk and a song


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The passing of famed folksinger Pete Seeger on Monday evening in New York touched all who fondly recalled his melodic nudging of America’s social movement during the second half of the 20th century.

The only time I saw him was the evening of Saturday, Nov. 9, last year while I was attending a meeting of the Newspaper Guild in Buffalo, N.Y. Mr. Seeger, still an active activist at the age of 94, was on his way to a performance at the convention center and had stopped by the hotel where we were gathered.

There were about 40 union reps in the room and Mr. Seeger — who had helped write the soundtrack for America’s labor movement — was there not so we could applaud him, but so that he could applaud us.

“I wanted to be a newspaper man,” he told the newspaper men and women. “I ran school newspapers for about five months in a little primary school and three and a half years in prep school. … And briefly in college. So I had about eight years’ experience trying to write articles. And I couldn’t even get a nibble of a job.

“My father’s younger sister was a very good schoolteacher, and she said, ‘Peter, come sing some of your songs for my class. I can get $5 for you.’ This was 1939.

“It seemed like stealing. A lot of people had to work all day or all night to get $5 in those days. But I went and took the money and quit looking for an honest job. And I’ve been singing ever since.”

He then stood up on a chair — with the help of myself and another gentleman — and sang a bit of the 1947 song “Newspapermen” without accompaniment.

His voice was soft and strained, raspy even. The pauses were long. But it was still the sound of what many people considered to be “the voice of the people.”

Many of his songs — such as “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” — were social anthems that inspired a generation. “We Shall Overcome” still stirs emotions, as well as action.

His stop at our union meeting was brief. He never unbuttoned the down jacket he was wearing, and he didn’t remove the knit cap with the fuzzy ball. He didn’t sing the entire “Newspapermen” song while standing on that chair.

But it was a special moment, and I got the chance to shake his hand and say, “God bless you, sir.”

He was 94 years old — and he was gone too quickly.

Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.


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