Skip to main content

Pete Seeger's protest struck a chord

By John Bare
January 30, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
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
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT