For social activist and Green Party member Ursula Rozum, her Pete Seeger moment came in 2013.
“He was only a few feet away from me,” recalled Rozum, “and he started playing Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land.’”
By then, Seeger at age 93 was rarely performing. But as a longtime environment activist, he showed up at a rally against fracking — the controversial process of extracting natural gas from shale. “People felt very blessed to have him as a part of the anti-fracking movement,” Rozum said.
Rozum is among the Central New York residents for whom Seeger was an inspiration and role-model.
Pete Seeger was born in Patterson, N.Y., on May 3, 1919. He rose to fame as a folk singer and songwriter. By the 1940’s, he was receiving airplay on the radio. In the 1950s, he endured a period of blacklisting, only to reemerge in the 1960s with songs of protest and change.
In 1966, he founded the Hudson River Clearwater Sloop, Inc., an environmental organization dedicated to protecting the Hudson River and surrounding waterways through education and advocacy projects.
Through his music, Seeger was an educator, activist, advocate, and community organizer, who inspired generations.
Seeger’s journey to music and activism began at home, said Theo Cateforis, a Syracuse University professor who specializes in 20th Century music-history. His father, Charles Seeger, was a musicologist and political activist who wrote songs about “the common man,” Cateforis said. Pete Seeger’s stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, composed a song about Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian-American anarchists, who were notoriously convicted on robbery and murder charges. Despite worldwide protests and pleas for release, they were executed in August of 1927. The two are memorialized in a mural on the Syracuse University campus.
“People knew Pete Seeger especially through the folk revival of the 1960s. But he was a presence before then”, Cateforis said. In the 1940s and 1950s, Seeger was a member of The Weavers folk-singing group. After The Weavers were blacklisted, he was a guest music teacher in New York City schools, where he taught folk songs to his classes.
In this role, he was a major influence on later music stars. For example, singer-songwriter Carly Simon had him as a music teacher, when she was in kindergarten, according to Sheila Weller’s book, “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon – and the Journey of a Generation.”
For Cortland-based musician Colleen Kattau, Seeger was a role model in music and ally in activism. She first encountered him at a People’s Music Network gathering in the early 1980’s. Later, they would share the stage at other events around the country.
Her fondest memory, she said, is from a concert in 2000 to speak out about the international custody controversy surrounding Elián González. González was a Cuban boy at the center of a heated U.S.-Cuban custody and immigration dispute in 2000, following his mother’s death at sea. Kattau was onstage with Seeger singing “Bright Morning Star.” She improvised the lyrics, “Let Elián grow up communist.” And, she recalled, “Pete just was bent over laughing. It was so great to see this man just cracking up.” She added, “It was like the highlight of my life. And now, it’s a very special memory.”
The Seeger family also had Syracuse connections through Libba Cotten, the author of the song “Freight Train.” She had been a housekeeper for the Seegers. “Her grandson, the Reverend Larry Ellis, had moved to the Southside, and Libba came up to stay with his family,” said Sean Kirst, a columnist for The Post-Standard/ Syracuse.com who had interviewed Pete Seeger in 2012 in anticipation of the unveiling of a sculpture on the Southside commemorating Cotten.
The world would not have heard of Libba had it not been for the Seegers, said Kirst.“The story goes that Pete’s sister, Peggy, and brother, Mike – who Pete insisted was the better musician, than himself – would ask to do chores,” Kirst said, “if Libba would play guitar for them.”
For her part, Green Party activist Ursula Rozum credits Seeger with being a leader in using music as a means of creating community and encouraging activism. In her work at the Syracuse Peace Council, Rozum and joined with Central New York musicians using song as a tool to raise awareness.
“Social justice songs are really powerful,” said Rozum, “and it’s people like Pete Seeger that brought them to the masses.”
(Jess Marshalek is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)