Over the weekend, hip-hot artist Jasiri X posted this image on his twitter feed. It’s taken from the front page of the New York Daily News’ website. Note the screaming headline and the sympathetic caption: “Accused killer Dylann Roof had one chance at a stable family life — and his abusive dad ruined it for…
When I was a kid, my dad used to play the guitar. He had a reasonably decent six-string acoustic – the same guitar my brother Tom would later cut his teeth on – and he’d play old-timey folk songs like “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” and “Worried Man Blues”. That’s him on his 45th birthday, standing in the kitchen of our ancient house on Oak Park Avenue. I was 4 years old at the time.
Years later, sitting in a college dorm room in Urbana, Illinois, I would listen to the Clash’s debut album over and over again, and in it I heard the strains of the folk songs my father used to play on that old guitar. It’s not an accident. John Graham Mellor, better known as Clash frontman Joe Strummer, first called himself “Woody Mellor” – a tribute to the great Woody Guthrie, whose music influenced him as much if not more than rock bands like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. The roots of punk rock were sewn in American folk music.
So, when I fired up the computer on this intensely bright, intensely cold Chicago morning and I learned that Pete Seeger passed away Monday at the age of 94 – just two years older than my father would have been had he not died nearly 20 years ago – it struck me how Seeger’s music formed a chain that linked the generations of my family, from my dad playing his six-string guitar in the kitchen, to my older siblings protesting the war in Vietnam, to me, sitting in a college dorm room, listening to the record that changed everything.
The New York Times’ obituary describes Mr. Seeger as a “singer, folk-song collector and songwriter who spearheaded an American folk revival and spent a long career championing folk music as both a vital heritage and a catalyst for social change,” all of which is true. It recites the facts and figures and vital statistics of his life: He was born in 1919. He attended Harvard. He dropped out of college, moved to New York City, and got involved in the music business. He served in World War II. He refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He culled together “We Shall Overcome” from various traditional gospel songs, and it became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. He influenced everybody from the Byrds and Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen.
But what’s missing from all these recitations of the man’s accomplishments is this: He had a deep, personal impact on the people of his generation – the generation of my mother and father – and on the people of my generation, and on the generations that followed. See, it’s not just the people who went on to make records or to give great speeches or to change the world who were touched by Pete Seeger. It’s ordinary, rank and file people like us … without whom some of those changes may not have been possible.
When my father passed away in 1994, my niece Abby was in eighth grade. At his funeral, while most of us were incapacitated by grief, Abby stood up and delivered an amazing eulogy. She talked about how much her grandfather meant to her, and how proud she was of the things he’d done in his life. At the end of her remarks, knowing it was one of my dad’s favorite songs, she sang the opening verse of Pete Seeger’s “Worried Man Blues”:
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song …
You’re goddamn right it does.