In this day and age of self-aggrandizing pop stars, it is hard for today’s generation to imagine that there ever existed a selfless singer of song who was only concerned with the causes he sang about and not his celebrity. Well, there was a man of such integrity. I’m talking about our last American folk hero, Pete Seeger. A champion of the disenfranchised since the 1940s, Pete railed against war, pollution, racism, greed, and social injustice for eight decades. He bravely risked a 10-year prison sentence for defying Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt in the 1950s and popularized the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic march in the 1960s. His anti-war song, “Knee Deep in the Big Muddy,” became a force in ending the Vietnam War. He founded the Clearwater organization, which continues to clean up the Hudson River. Right up until the very end, the 94-year-old icon was fighting the good fight. At 94, he performed at the Farm Aid concert, leading Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews, and Neil Young in song against fracking. I spoke and exhibited my art at a gun control rally that Pete had organized and planned to perform at this past January 2014. The only reason he wasn’t there was because it coincided with his wake that was taking place about a half a mile down the road.
It’s because he sang for things like justice and the environment, and not for record sales, that he is so admired. Besides being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and winning a Grammy at 90, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts and a Kennedy Center Honor. He was chosen to sing at President Obama’s historic first inauguration. Bruce Springsteen devoted an entire album to Pete’s songs.
As an artist who’s known for creating work that challenges people to think more deeply about many of the same issues that Pete sang about, I have been personally inspired by Pete Seeger. That’s why I recently took time off from my sociopolitical paintings to create the portrait of Pete titled, “Beacon Of Hope” that hangs in Pete’s (and my) hometown of Beacon, NY, where the locals cherish their own national treasure.
There is currently a greatly deserved petition to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Somehow, I doubt Kanye West will ever get nominated for a Nobel Prize, unless of course he nominates himself. What made Pete so special is that he never cared about accolades—in fact, he disdained them. He only cared about the making the world a fairer place for generations and trying to preserve it for future ones.