Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pete Seeger: An American Icon

When I got up Tuesday morning and turned on my iPhone to check the weather the first thing I read was "Pete Seeger has died at 94." 

Banjo inscription:“This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”  

The news that we have lost one of our national treasures has gnawed at me all week.
He was a musician, a story teller, an activist, and a culture bearer. 

I consider Pete Seeger the american embodiment of the Kodály philosophy. 
He understood the power of music and the importance of people embracing their musical  heritage. He spoke out against injustice and righted wrongs while unifying people through music. 

I was a child of the 70s but I grew up on the popular folk music from the 1960s. Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul, and Mary, The Kingston Trio, Gordon Lightfoot, and Bob Dylan were on heavy rotation during my childhood. In my elementary music class we sang Where Have All the Flowers Gone and If I Had a Hammer every year in sing a longs. These were songs everybody just knew, it seemed. When I began my Kodály studies, I realized how many folk songs I had learned initially through Pete Seeger. A little later in my life, Pete Seeger records were on heavy rotation in my house after I had my son. As a new mother I made many playlists for the baby. I wanted my child to be exposed to great music and lots of it! 

Here are a few of my favorite Pete Seeger recordings and books and how I've used them in the music classroom.

Jim Along Josie

Karla Cherwinski wrote about movement with Jim Along Josie recently at Kodály Corner. (You should definitely check that out!)
I love to use Pete Seeger's version of the song. It's just Pete and his banjo and very fun to move to! First I ask students to share ways we can move. Then I sing the song and play guitar adding movements that the students have mentioned. I have the children freeze when they hear "Hey Jim along, Jim along, Josie." Freezing on the "Hey Jim along" shows that they're listening. (It's also a good way to slow them down if their movements are getting a bit out of control!)

We move to the Pete Seeger version the next time I see the class. I love to see what they do when Pete sings "roll Jim along...!"

You can find Pete's Jim Along Josie many places but I suggest the album Birds, Beasts, Bugs, & Fishes  Little & Big Animal Folk Songs. This is a wonderful album and fun listening for children  everyone. My kids particularly like the songs Ground Hog and the very short (and shocking!) The Elephant.


Get America Singing and Get America Singing... Again! Songbooks 

The Get America Singing books were a project of MENC and Pete Seeger was the Honorary National Chair for the Get America Singing...Again! campaign. There's a lovely Foreword by Pete in which he emphasizes the value of people singing together. 

Do you have a stack of these in your music room? What a wonderful collection of songs!
Pass them out, grab your guitar or piano and let the students just sing. Sing for the sake of singing together. It might not fit the melodic or rhythmic concept the class is working on and that's fine.

Pete writes:
"To take a lung full of air and push it out with some kind of song is an act of survival, whether you're singing in a shower, a car, a bar, in a chorus, at a birthday party, at a church, or wherever. Try it- you'll live longer."

Amen to that!


This book was such a stable when I started teaching music it became cliché to even promote it. ("Abiyoyo? Of course I read Abiyoyo to my students ever year!!")
I'm not sure if it's as well known today.

This is a charming story about an ostracized magician father, his banjo playing son, and how they banish the carnivorous giant Abiyoyo from their town. You could read and sing this yourself OR you could turn pages and let Pete narrate and sing. (The book comes with a CD.)

I almost hate to mention it, (because you really should have this book,) but there is a great video of Pete telling the story on the Reading Rainbow program. 

This Land is Your Land 2009 Inauguration Performance
I've been showing this sing a long performance of This Land is Your Land at the 2009 inauguration of President Obama to my 4th, 5th, and 6th graders this week. Just seeing 89 year old Pete leading the mass of people in song is stirring. I love that he was true to Woody Guthrie's full intentions and made sure to include those often "forgotten" verses.

Pete performs here with his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Bruce Springsteen.

The Pete Seeger documentary Pete Seeger: Power of Song is not for the kids but provides a fascinating narrative of his life in music and politics. It's a "must see" for anyone serious about understanding the importance of folk song in the united states. I highly recommend this inspiration film.

Zoltán Kodály said "...only the best is good enough for a child." 
Pete Seeger was one of our best. May he rest in peace.