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Voice of five generations

It is almost impossible to overstate the influence of Pete Seeger, who died early this week at 94. Take just my family: my mother (b. 1913) loved listening to his records; my oldest sister (b. 1937) learned banjo from him at a summer camp; I (b. 1954) learned banjo first from her and then from his banjo book. One of my closest friends, Bill Steele, counts Seeger's recording his song "Garbage" as one of his proudest achievements.

Probably the first thing anyone thinks of when Seeger is called to mind is the voice. The image I will always think of first, however, is Pete Seeger at 92, performing a concert and then marching through Manhattan to support Occupy Wall Street.

The Cornell Folk Song Club (now Society), for which I served as president from 1973-1975, owes him a great debt for his long memory. In the 1950s, when the McCarthy era blacklist kept many places from hiring him, one or more of my predecessors (most likely including Peter Yarrow) went ahead and booked him anyway. Seeger never forgot, and for many years CFSC was able to finance booking many smaller, unknown artists simply because he regularly sold out concerts for us on very generous financial terms. I'm sure there are thousands more stories like that.

Recent movies about the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene - the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, the Christopher Guest brothers' A Mighty Wind - have focused on the music and musicians and left out the politics. This may be why they seem to lack energy: politics and passion for fairness were as much drivers as sheer love of the music.

No one has been quite able to leave politics out of the many tributes to Seeger that have been published this week, though as early as the 1960s the songwriter Phil Ochs nailed the extent to which people tried. As you'd expect, Mother Jones looked at both protest songs and politics; elsewhere, there's this discussion of Seeger's association with the American Communist Party.

Several of the obits marvel at the chutzpah of one of Seeger's biggest projects: cleaning up the Hudson River, starting in 1966 with a few friends and a boat. So get this: with a load of corporations dumping pollution, and the city, state, and federal governments not much interested, a guy says, "We're going to fix this." It sounds impossible. Kind of like a few programmer guys in a lab somewhere saying, "I know. Let's write an operating system and take on Microsoft." These things happen gradually, as each tiny bit of success attracts more participants - participants, not followers.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of folksingers, both amateur and professional, survive Seeger as living parts of his legacy. What's less recognized is that a whole different group are also inheritors of his mantle who themselves may not recognize it: the open-source community. Throughout his life, Seeger took the view that everyone can sing and that public singing builds community, and community builds protest. Isn't that what today's activist programming is all about?

Sixty years from now, the movies filmed about the early years of the Internet probably will also gloss over the politics. We'll see sad little movies about the people who failed to build their start-ups into giant companies and happy little movies about the people who went to ComicCon. Yet what I see around me every day - the fuel for net.wars - is the people who code as a way of promoting social justice. Sure, they may be mistaken: about what the effects of their work will eventually be, about the motives of those working with them, about how easy it will be for their work to be diverted in a direction they don't approve. But the community surrounding technology and activism is the closest thing to the folk scene of any subculture I've encountered.

These things can be fragile. The folk scene of protest and engagement required access to travel and performance venues - though one lesson of the 17-year blacklist ban that kept Seeger off TV is that a sufficiently talented musician can succeed without it. The coding scene of protest and engagement requires general-purpose hardware that can be programmed at will. Access to tools is critical: everyone can learn to program at least a little bit. We must keep those possibilities open so that when the true geniuses emerge can they have an ecosystem in which they can do the stuff no one else can.

If any of us is ever called in front of a latter-day recreation of the House Un-American Activities Committee, as Seeger was in 1955, I hope we are able to say something like what he said:

I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. 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.

What a life.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma award Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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