Pete Seeger’s Banjo

If there is one thing I am probably the most proud of when it comes to having raised three children, it is Pete Seeger’s banjo.

My sons are considered “millennials,” that recognition-seeking cohort born from apparently non-descript Gen X-ers like me. Like anything we experience today, understanding how we arrived is all the more important. And music is no exception. Like Seeger, my kids grew up with a musicologist of sorts – me. I was no Alan Lomax, but I treated my sons to the folk songs I learned in school, back when music was a part of the curriculum. Cassettes and CD’s of fun folk songs for kids blared through the minivan. “Ridin’ in My Car” by Woody Guthrie was a favorite; “John Henry” was another.

Together my sons and I explored Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Mississippi John Hurt and even Mavis Staples. I introduced them to African Spirituals, protest songs and songs born from the labor movement. With the help of a guitar instructor, who happened to be a world-class folk musician, my sons learned Seeger’s songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “If I Had a Hammer” on guitar, banjo and mandolin. They not only knew the lyrics and chords, they understood the historical context in which the songs were written; that those words spoke for the (common) people.

Pete Seeger’s banjo famously has these words printed around its head. I love that my sons can quote it:

This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender

My sons and I realize the power of music whether in the form of folk, punk, rock, or of other languages. It is has been woven into our spiritual, political and social identity – three areas of ourselves that have been mistakenly pulled apart over the last fifty years.

Folk music is the voice of the people and Pete Seeger embodied it. I hope my sons will always see music as the force it can be for activism and eventual change. And that they will heed Seeger’s instruction in Quite Early Morning:

And so keep on while we live
Until we have no, no more to give
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger.