Spiritual Lessons from a Recently-Passed American Icon

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, February 16, 2014

Colossians 3:12-16 CEB

I know that at least some members of our United Church must have been Pete Seeger fans.  Now, I realize that Pete, especially in his earlier years, was somewhat controversial because of his left-wing, outspoken politics and associations.  But it has been noted that Pete mellowed over the years.  And he admitted that some of his early political leanings were wrong and he later denounced them.  And whether one agrees with his politics or not, one does have to admit that through his music, activism, and educational endeavors, Pete Seeger has left an indelible (and we might even say “spiritual”) mark upon American culture.  Some have even called him an American icon.  Pete was no saint, and I am not trying to make him out to be one.  In fact, when Bob Dylan called Pete a saint some years ago, Pete didn’t like it.  He replied, “What a terrible thing to call someone.  I’ve made a lot of foolish mistakes over the years.”

As you no doubt are aware, folk singer and songwriter Pete Seeger died on January 27 at the age of 94.  I have to admit that until his death, I didn’t know Pete very well.  I certainly was not aware of the important place he has held in American culture and how he helped shape American thought.  Luckily—or providentially, perhaps—we happened to catch a PBS special about Pete Seeger a few days following his death.  And I must say that I was quite impressed with what I learned.

Pete was born on May 3, 1919, in New York to accomplished musical parents.  After Pearl Harbor, Seeger enlisted in the Army and trained as an airplane mechanic.  But he ended up entertaining troops in the Pacific.  Pete was one of the most famous folk singers of all time.  He and the groups he was associated with had a number of Top 40 hits.  Pete had the belief that songs could help change the world.  And he was right.  It makes us think of that verse I read from the letter to the Colossians: “Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (3:16).  Had the writer of that letter known about folk music, I believe he would have included it as well.  But Pete Seeger took seriously the concept of using his songs to teach and warn about important issues of society, culture, and faith.  It has been noted that Pete drew from the scriptures for the lyrics to some of his songs such as “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the words of which are taken almost verbatim from Ecclesiastes chapter 3.  Poet Carl Sandburg described Pete Seeger as “America’s tuning fork.”

Some of the other songs that Pete Seeger wrote or made popular were “On Top of Old Smoky,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and “We Shall Overcome.”

“Songs,” Seeger said, “can help us explore our past and our present.”  In the course of his 70+ year career, Pete would sing for college students, migrant workers, and presidents.  In 1994, at the Kennedy Center, President Bill Clinton hailed Seeger as “an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them.”  Upon hearing of his death, President Barrack Obama said “Seeger used his voice to strike blows for workers and civil rights, world peace, and environmental conservation.”  In writing about him in TIME magazine, Arlo Guthrie said, “Sometimes he was right; sometimes he was wrong.  But he was right most of the time. . .”

In researching his life and work, I learned that Pete Seeger was a social activist.  Seeger opposed McCarthyism and he marched beside Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil rights era.    But even in the 1940s, long before the great Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” became popular, Seeger was singing it.  In fact, Seeger is credited with helping to popularize “We Shall Overcome” and adding some stanzas to it.  During the 1960s, he came South to oppose Jim Crow laws.  Through his songs, Pete struggled for justice and sought to “speak truth to power.”

In his song “If I Had a Hammer,” Seeger sang of hammering out a warning.  At the end of the song he says, “Well I got a hammer. . .  It’s the hammer of Justice, It’s the bell of Freedom, It’s the song about Love between my brothers and my sisters.”   Pete was from way back a social activist.

Pete was also a peace advocate.  The song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” which he wrote, became a worldwide song of peace. Pete shared how that he had, on separate occasions, written down some phrases.   While dozing on an airplane, the different phrases came together, and within 20 minutes he had written “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”  He Scotch-taped the words of the song to a microphone and first sang it in 1955 at Oberlin College. In that song he asks,

Where have all the husbands gone?

Gone for soldiers everyone. . . .

Where have all the soldiers gone?

Gone to graveyards, everyone.

In his quest for peacemaking, Seeger opposed the Viet Nam war, and all wars.  His anti-war song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” was controversial, and its airing was censored when he sang it on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  Pete said, “All our militance, enthusiasm, bravery will count for nothing if we can’t cross the oceans of misunderstanding between the peoples of the world.”  He couldn’t understand why all peoples couldn’t live together in peace.

And Pete was an avid environmentalist.  Raised in New York and living near the Hudson River, Seeger became concerned about how polluted the river had become, one of the most polluted in America.  It had become the dumping ground for much waste and toxic chemicals.  “The world was being turned into a poisonous garbage dump,” Seeger later observed.  He was inspired by Rachel Carson’s 1962 monumental work, Silent Spring, that sparked the beginning of the environmental movement.  So in 1968, he began leading a movement to build a replica of an old-fashioned Hudson River sloop (a small river craft with one sail).  The boat was 75 feet long, 25 feet wide, and the mast was 105 feet high.  “If the Hudson was to be saved,” he said, “people must learn to love it again, to come down to the water’s edge and see it close.”  The Clearwater became a floating educational classroom as thousands of children have sailed on it and learned lessons about environmentalism.  The Clearwater Pete Seeger have been credited with doing much to help clean up the Hudson River.

Yes, Pete Seeger was a world ambassador for social justice, world peace, and environmental causes.  It has been observed that through his songs, Pete Seeger “still speaks out for a world without war, without poverty, without injustice.”

The spiritual lessons that we can learn from this American folk music icon seem obvious: If we take the Bible—especially the great Hebrew prophets and Jesus—seriously, we can do nothing less than be advocates for justice.   As much as possible, we should be committed to working for peaceful relations in our families, community, and as much as possible, our wider world.  “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, “for they shall be called the children of God.”  And as for being environmentalists, apart from the fact that we need to work to protect and clean up the environment for our own well-being and the well-being of our children and grandchildren, for some of us it is a sacred obligation, believing the Earth to be a revelation of the Divine, and hence Sacred.

As Arlo Guthrie said of Seeger, “he was right most of the time.”  May it be so of us as well when it comes to standing up for justice, working for peace, and protecting and healing our environment.  May we be right most of the time.  Amen.

Note: I have drawn from several sources as noted below, and don’t always cite those sources directly, but in no way sought to plagiarize from any of them.  Sources :

Guthrie, Arlo.  TIME magazine, February 10, 2014, p. 22.

Miller, Stephen.  Wall Street Journal, January 29, 2014.

Minzesheimer, Bob.  USA Today, January 29, 2014.

Oak Ridger newspaper, Oak Ridge, TN, January 29, 2014.

UUWord.org.  Reprint from UU World, July/August 1996.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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