This week, Pete Seeger passed away at the age of 94. If you are not familiar with him or his work, he was a folk singer who popularized songs like “This Land is Your Land” and “If I Had a Hammer.” He also composed controversial songs such as “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a veiled criticism of the Vietnam War. He was a musician, activist, for a while a communist, and as far as I’m concerned he was a hero. He did not have powers beyond his voice; he could not fly or turn invisible, and he did not hide his identity. Instead, he openly challenged what he viewed as wrong. He was a public figure, not private martyr, as so many heroes are portrayed in our TV and movies today.
Unlike many of our fictional heroes, he was not a cyborg, a CIA-trained assassin, or a mutant from a lab accident. He did not use his fame or wealth to fly around cities beating people up. Instead, he relied on his banjo and his voice to make the world a better place. People like Pete make me wish that our media would create more realistic heroes, activists who use music, art, humor, and speech to save the world, rather than fists, guns, bombs, and money. Such depictions, I think, expose a collective fantasy in which a stranger solves our problems with simple violence. Pete, along with heroes like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rigoberta Menchú, saw peaceful activism as the only solution. In stark contrast, the people we often describe as villains are murderers and dictators, those who resort to brutality and violence to bend the world to their will.
I wish we could see more fictional heroes portrayed accurately. I would like to see people use books as weapons. I would like to see heroes replace guns with speeches and super strength with musical talent. Pete Seeger was a hero, and he challenged the world’s villains with nothing more than a few songs and a little determination. If we can learn anything from him, it’s that truly heroic actions are for the commoner, for you and me and everybody else with a little talent and a lot of ambition. We do not need to have been born on Krypton to save the world when traveling with a banjo on our knee will suffice.
So rest in peace, Pete Seeger. You left us with a brighter world than the one you knew.