Legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger died last Monday. The 94-year-old was a passionate advocate for civil rights, nonviolence, and environmentalism. Seeger was also a personal friend of Hesston College sociology professor Tony Brown.
“Pete Seeger is an iconic figure,” Brown said. “He was the father of folk music who revolutionized the country with his singing.”
Seeger’s career began in the 1940s and was always about more than just music. Seeger’s activism led him to protesting Vietnam and lending his rendition of “We Shall Overcome” to Martin Luther King’s campaign in the 1960s as well as singing at President Obama’s first inauguration.
Brown got to know Seeger while he was doing research on Paul Robeson, a famous musician and singer, for his production “I Go On Singing,” which pays tribute to the life and music of Robeson. Robeson, also a civil rights activist, often played at venues with Seeger. Seeger is featured several times in the video portion of “I Go On Singing.”
While Brown, a highly acclaimed baritone, never formally performed with Seeger, Brown knew the activist well enough to know how much the world will miss him.
“[When I heard he died] I felt the same feeling as when Nelson Mandela died,” Brown said. “The question now is who’s going to replace him? He had such a deep commitment to civil rights and environmental justice.”
Seeger’s reputation as a revolutionary indeed figure took many forms as Brown alluded to. As a performer, Seeger was known for inspiring his audience to sing along with him. Brown admitted that Seeger’s singing voice wasn’t what propelled his popularity, but rather his stage presence and emotion.
“Singing together creates community,” Brown said. “Pete always wanted that.”
As an activist, Brown remembers how Seeger got himself into trouble with the U.S. government with his ideals and unflinching conviction to them. Seeger outspokenness even earned himself a spot on Joe McCarthy’s blacklist and was accosted by the Senator along with scores of other great activists of the time.
Brown admired this fearless community-builder, both for his moving music and his inspirational acts and hopes to continue Seeger’s mission with his own music.
“As long as I’m engaged in getting other people to sing and to take part in this world I’ll be honoring his work,” Brown said. “Everyone knows him as a man of peace, social activism, and compassion. I think he’ll continue to inspire people to do that.”
Tony Brown’s show about the life and works of Paul Robeson, “I Go On Singing,” is scheduled for multiple performances across the U.S., and Brown’s newest CD, “How Can I Keep From Singing?” will be available soon. For more information, visit www.anthonybrownbaritone.net.