I lived then in the Park Circus area in Kolkata and often walked back from my office near Park Street, less than two miles away. As I passed the park near my home, I noticed the unusual crowd and heard the music. Inquisitive, I sauntered in.
I had never seen anything like it. I turned to an older person next to me and asked who the man was. Irate for the interruption, he whispered, “Pete Seeger.” First time I heard the name.
But then the man started on a song I had heard, “Where have all the flowers gone,” a protest song that had already gone around the globe. He followed with another familiar song, “If I had a hammer,” which too was used at a protest rally. I did not know then that Pete was the lyricist and composer as well as the singer. I heard him, mesmerized, until he concluded with the visionary “We shall overcome” – a song that could be heard in India in two local languages. It was only later that I learned that Pete had replaced the ‘will’ in the original spiritual with a ‘shall’ and given the song its current tone and tempo.
When I narrated my remarkable experience the next day to my photographer friend, Debesh, he surprised me with a song album of the Weavers. Pete was the lead singer of the group, which had its name from the weavers Pete and others had tried to help during their strike against exploitative employers. Pete sang with them for several years and helped build its following but quit the moment he found the group had agreed to do a jingle for a tobacco company.
I loved the songs of the album, like “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Little Boxes,” all of which espoused a humane cause, and heard them over and over again. I was stunned to hear a less known ditty called “Who killed Norma Jean?” that exposed the ruthless Hollywood exploitation of Marilyn Monroe (Norma Jean was her real name). I had just read her husband Arthur Miller’s play ‘After the Fall’ about her end and felt the song encapsulated her tragedy. What a charming song and what a searing message! Like thousands in many countries, I became a Pete Seeger fan.
Pete’s parents were both musicologists, his father teaching at Berkeley and Yale and his mother at the famous Juilliard. Pete went to Harvard on a scholarship but dropped out to play music. He learned ukulele and then banjo on his own and even invented the long-neck banjo. He started playing in the countryside, learning about both country music and exploited country folk. From then to the end of his life he used his musical talent to fight for causes like civil and labor rights, racial equality, anti-militarism, international coordination, and environmental protection. He believed songs could make ordinary people conscious of their rights and encourage them to fight for those. Rabid right-wing groups had him blacklisted, stripped him of his job and tried to put him in jail. He also did pioneer work for abolition of the death penalty, which worked mostly against the poor and the disadvantaged.
It was an amazing coincidence that our paths crossed again two decades later in a very different part of the world.
He picked up his banjo and hummed a few lines of Raghupati Raghava Rajaram. He said he intended to visit India again. I wondered how earnest he was, but I know he fulfilled that promise twelve years later.
I saw him again at Barack Obama’s inauguration, singing “This land is your land” with Bruce Springsteen. He was 89, but his voice was strong and melodic, quite memorable. It was a joyous culmination of the career of a splendid man who, all his life, used his songs – not to gain wealth or fame – to defend the undefended at great personal cost.