Skip to main content

Pete Seeger's protest struck a chord

By John Bare
updated 10:07 AM EST, Thu January 30, 2014
Legendary folk singer and political activist Pete Seeger died of natural causes on January 27, his grandson told CNN. He was 94. Pictured, Seeger performs on stage in 1970. Legendary folk singer and political activist Pete Seeger died of natural causes on January 27, his grandson told CNN. He was 94. Pictured, Seeger performs on stage in 1970.
HIDE CAPTION
Folk legend Pete Seeger
Folk legend Pete Seeger
Folk legend Pete Seeger
Folk legend Pete Seeger
Folk legend Pete Seeger
Folk legend Pete Seeger
Folk legend Pete Seeger
Folk legend Pete Seeger
Folk legend Pete Seeger
Folk legend Pete Seeger
Folk legend Pete Seeger
Folk legend Pete Seeger
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Legendary folk singer Pete Seeger died recently at the age of 94
  • John Bare says Seeger was part of central role of music in civil rights movement
  • Bare: Leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. mixed with the singers who spread message
  • Seeger understood the liberating power of music, Bare says

Editor's note: John Bare is vice president of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and executive-in-residence at Georgia Tech's Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship.

(CNN) -- Pete Seeger sang with such a gentle voice that it's easy to forget how his music drove a fierce, radical movement for change.

"Young people in the civil rights movement began to realize that music was like a weapon you could use, but it was a nonviolent weapon. So you didn't have to feel powerless. You had this weapon, and it was a beautiful song," said Candie Carawan in a phone interview from her Tennessee home.

Her husband, Guy, is one of the musicians, along with Seeger and Frank Hamilton, credited with adapting the song "We Shall Overcome" from an earlier hymn. They were more vessels than songwriters. They became instruments through which the words of oppressed individuals got a hearing. Seeger, Carawan and others lifted up anonymous voices, and these voices changed the world.

John Bare
John Bare

For 17 years, I've been working closely with nonprofit organizations that are advocating for causes. They deploy lots of PowerPoint shows. It's nearly unimaginable a nonprofit executive would put music front and center in an advocacy campaign.

Yet that is what happened in the civil rights movement. And it worked.

I called Guy Carawan a few years ago, when he was still granting interviews, to ask him whether the music came to be important through some kind of happy accident, or whether it was intentional.

Folk icon Pete Seeger dies at 94

Turns out music was front and center by design.

Some of the credit goes to Danish folk schools. That's where Myles Horton saw firsthand how to deploy culture in training individuals to take on social and political causes.

A Tennessee native educated in New York and Chicago, Horton co-founded Highlander Folk School in 1932. As in the Danish schools he visited, music was central. His wife, Zilphia, classically trained in music, led Highlander's music program and helped create the anthems we associate with the civil rights movement.

Highlander hosted and trained the Mount Rushmore names from the civil rights movement, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and James Bevel. They mixed with folk musicians such as Seeger and Carawan. And everyone mixed with men and women who would never become famous -- just folks fighting for the right to vote, to move about freely and to speak freely. The right to be recognized as human beings, in short.

This pre-Internet caldron of connectivity -- civil rights leaders and musicians and ordinary men and women mixing together in common cause -- scared the dickens out of people who derived power from the status quo. Authorities could arrest people and beat people. They just couldn't stop the singing.

Carawan taught "We Shall Overcome" to young people in 1960 at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at Shaw University.

"Ella Baker wanted me down there to teach that song," Carawan said. "There is power in the words and the songs and the people."

Two weeks before, he had been at Highlander teaching "We Shall Overcome" to one of the first gatherings of the students who would lead sit-ins. At the same meeting, he taught students to sing "I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table" and "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize."

It all seems so harmless now, these beautiful songs. But singing those songs could result in a beating. Or time in jail.

Music was gasoline on the civil rights fire, and Highlander was effectively a music distribution hub.

So tiny little Monteagle, Tennessee, home to Highlander, became a threat to the most powerful people in the country.

Georgia state officials sent a spy to Monteagle and ran a smear campaign against King. A congressional committee went after Seeger. The state of Tennessee shut down Highlander and seized the land.

"There's great nostalgia for these songs," Candie Carawan says. "They have become part of American culture. But at the time, the songs were threatening. It helped people feel united."

Nothing is more threatening to power than seeing opponents organize. It's easier to hold off a bunch of unhappy individuals, each isolated and harmless. It's tougher to resist a bunch of unhappy individuals who unite and work together.

Or as Arlo Guthrie describes in his anti-war song "Alice's Restaurant," if one person sings alone, authorities will think he's crazy. If 50 people sing out together, they will see it's a movement.

"Pete understood how powerful music could be," Candie Carawan said this week, reflecting upon his death. "He thought it could change the world. Not all of us would go that far, but he really believed that."

Seeger described his banjo as a machine that surrounds hate and forces it to surrender. He was right.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Bare.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT