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Democratic Learning: Pete Seeger, A Real Teacher In Tribute to An American Folk Legend, 1919 to 2014


"Do you know the difference between education and experience? Education is when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don't."
Pete Seeger

In high school the world seemed filled with cliques and hang-ups, and I hoped that college was where you could get rid them. I don’t remember many of my teachers. I didn’t learn much in college, either. At least not in the first two years; I hardly read a book that I can still recall. So I had no prospects and might as well drop out, I thought at the time. That summer though, I stumbled upon a book that changed everything, not only making me a student, but ultimately making me a teacher. It was called How to Play the 5-String Banjo. It was by Pete Seeger. Self-published. Somehow, to me, it looked like the first real book I’d ever seen.

I didn’t have a banjo, but in the back of that book were some references on how to make your own, so I ran around New York and New England gathering parts. I loosely followed Pete’s instructions on banjo making and it somehow felt like the first real thing I’d ever done. And I hardly knew how to play but, on the back of the book there was a quote from a 1800s banjo picker, “Can I read notes? Hell, there are no notes to a banjo, you just play it.” And of course I did that.

Sounds simple but there was something profound that actually reached me when I saw this book. Because at college–with its learned professors and it’s A students—no matter what you wanted to study, there were other students who dwarfed my skills and knowledge. In the giant university halls of academia, learning seemed like an in-game and I admit I often downshifted, low in confidence. What college appeared to be teaching me and arguably at least one-third of all who start out in the university life was that we probably wouldn’t be particularly, distinguishingly good at anything they had to offer. I was living in a world of experts. But the way Pete presented it, learning was something for everyone, and it had nothing to do with being compliant or getting a grade. Suddenly, making things seemed like it was for everyone, and music was something for everyone. The introduction to Seeger’s manual says just, “Get together with others who like to sing,” and it goes on from there.

Suddenly, there was Pete, finding the same thing in music I had found at university. He had been to England and France and found that music had become an in-game for the classicists who felt anything done by the common people was something “less.” But for Pete, music-making was not just for concert hall and recording artists, it was for front porches and school assemblies. What Pete was saying in publishing his book was that you didn’t need to be a formal, classically trained musician to get full access to music. Music comes from us, we need only to allow and embrace it, and is not an activity reserved for the elite.

Luckily, as time went on, quite a few other people also remembered that music was for front porches and campfires and town squares, and that we could all have lovely partnerships even if we could not play at Lincoln Center or in the big time. “I think the world can be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong with things get big,” he once said. We’re all musicians if we’re willing. With this approach, despite massive cuts to arts education, it would be impossible to keep music out of almost any classroom. Music of Spheres for math, national anthems for history, beta beats for physical education, soft baroque for concentration in any class, there’s music for every teacher. Almost any sound you could make on any street corner in the country is not far from folk music. If you get chased off the corner making that sound, its even more folk music…and I admit I’ve been chased off street corners with students, as I’m sure Pete was scores of times.

Pete Seeger lived to be very old. At some point every American who calls himself educated is going to have to know the life of this amazing individual who spread freedom and simple, necessary folk wisdom all over our country. The kind of wisdom that is now in our national DNA even for those of us who don’t know where it came from.

Here is a short list of Pete Seeger songs, either written, co-written, or introduced to national audiences by him:

We Shall Overcome
This Land is Your Land
Where have All the Flower's Gone
Turn, Turn, Turn
Tzena, Tzena, Tzena
Kisses, Sweeter than Wine
Wimoweh (Lion Sleeps Tonight)
She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain
Follow the Drinkin' Gourd
Sloop John B
The Midnight Special
On Top of Old Smokey

These fill in an indispensable mid-twentieth century American songbook for our students and younger teachers and also created an indelible link between the social change and music of the twentieth century, or of any era. At least as important, they are songs that every one of our students can sing and play with their own hands and voices. 


With arguably fewer traditional folksingers in the country these days, I wonder if many of our students know what a folksinger’s true role is. As a folksinger, Seeger was motivated by concerns for social justice, cross-cultural communication, and international peace, and so he performed songs from diverse sources to any “folks” who’d listen, in order to advance these concerns. I’d like to think a great school has some folkteachers, willing to risk it all for some lessons that really reach students. A folk teacher would be one who was willing to step off the standards and testing train now and then, to risk his/her very job just to insist on having great conversations with students, or to honor the natural wisdom that students bring to the class.

I read that in February 2009, the San Diego School District officially extended an apology to Seeger for trying to ban Seeger's earlier performances. At any rate, to many of us Seeger stands for some issues like freedom and honoring people who work hard and I don't know where we'd be without him, not that we're all that far along. In addition, some of these songs such as “Wimoweh,” “Follow the Drinkin Gourd,” “Turn Turn Turn,” are deep and hauntingly beautiful. Others are just good solid folk. We can keep them alive and they can be done in almost any style.

Most don't realize that Pete was in World War II and fought for this country. Nevertheless, he was blacklisted from employment during the McCarthy era and almost starved playing for kids at schools and such, when he could hardly get work. One really cool thing to read is Pete's testimony before the U.S. Congress’s House Un-American Activities Committee, McCarthy's bunch. This testimony, hysterically funny for its attitude, landed Pete in jail. Right here in America. Here is a bit of it.

The committee tries to get him to say his sings his songs for communists, and that he’s Unamerican:

Pete: “I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody.”

The McCarthy prosecutor, citing a newspaper ad: “Tonight—Bronx, hear Peter Seeger and his guitar, at Allerton Section housewarming.” “May I ask you whether or not the Allerton Section was a section of the Communist Party?” the prosecutor asks.

Pete: “Sir, I refuse to answer that question, whether it was a quote from the New York Times or the Vegetarian Journal.”

McCarthy’s cross-examiner: “My question was whether or not you sang at these functions of the Communist Party. You have answered it inferentially, and if I understand your answer, you are saying you did.”

Pete, in a classic sting: “I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners.”

This strategy was considered to be contempt of Congress. For almost 20 years, no major TV network would allow Pete on the air.

On YouTube you can see him singing and strumming a handmade, fretless banjo, “What did you learn in school today,” and get the sense of how provocative he could be. Of course, when someone has enough insight, many others pretty much always find him to be provocative. Try this:

As America developed mass food, mass culture and mass education, and problems got bigger, Pete kept things on a human scale, valuing the kind of learning you can only get when you use your hands. One exciting movement in education is called “The Maker Movement.” This movement brings back the original do-it-yourself culture to our country, and is re-engaging people across the country in making things like metalwork, woodwork, and traditional arts and crafts. Things that work. This is also reflected in the campus gardens that are popping up on campuses across the country, and the habitats like local riverbeds and habitat corridors so many schools are adopting.

As if anticipating all this, in 1969, Seeger and others purchased a large, 106-foot sloop and started sailing it up and down the Hudson River until people understood the need to keep toxins out of the river and he taught virtually every person in the nation who was sane that rivers should not catch on fire, and he spent literally years going up and down that river on his boat, with his banjo. Pete is credited with the passage of one of the most landmark bills in US history: The Clear Water Act.

Into his 90s, Pete protested every week outside his Hudson River house in Beacon, NY, and people would pass by and say "Alright Pete!" Pete Seeger died tonight at 94. They said he was out chopping wood just a few days ago.

If I had to list my favorite Americans, it would be very hard from me to top Pete Seeger on that list. 

Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition. He consults with schools worldwide and been awarded the University of San Diego Career Achievement Award, plus various international educational exchange fellowships including a Fulbright. Stuart is one of the nation's top authorities on small schools education. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Discovery Channel, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” A regular essayist for Community Works Journal, new book is Fearless Teaching, “a rare book about education that is both beautiful and critically imperative,” is available at email Stuart

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