Pete Seeger died today at the age of 93. If ever anyone needed no introduction, well, it sure was Pete Seeger. And other, far more capable folks will write celebrating his nigh-on-a-century of staggering contributions to folk music, civil rights, and social justice.
So I thought it fitting to commemorate him as I remember him myself—a scruffy-bearded, white-haired, avuncular grown-up who sat on the tiny stage with a banjo and sang, captivating my three-year-old self. I didn’t know who he was but my parents seemed to think he was someone pretty special. I didn’t know he was a living legend. But I’d seen him Reading Rainbow, and it was pretty cool to see him outside of the box.
I don’t remember what song he sang at the concert. But on Reading Rainbow, any rate, he read a story that he’d written for his own children, a retelling of a South African folktale. As he explained in the interview:
I was singing a lullaby to me kids about thirty-five years ago, and you know, kids get about three years old and they discover that lullabies are propaganda songs… They don’t want to go to sleep! And they howled me down, “No! We want a story!” So I compromised—as one does in this world—said “OK, I’ll figure out a story but I’ll sing you the song too.”
And he told and sang a folktale about a boy with a ukulele, and giant who’d never heard a song about himself before, and here it is for you, too. It’s a trickster story, and a musician story, and here it is performed by one of the great musical tricksters of the twentieth century. A remarkable performance of a remarkable folktale from a remarkable man.
Rest well, Pete.