I wrote this for my former blog when Pete Seeger died. It’s worth reposting:
Pete Seeger has died, aged 94 years. If you don’t know who he is, get your head out of the sand and look him up. Listen. Think. Repeat.
The death of such a person does not signify the end. He left his recordings, his words and actions, to be studied and emulated. He left behind Pete Seeger the icon, a scholar of folk music, and a man of conscience. The icon existed well before he died, which allowed him to have a private life. For someone who was a star – as opposed to a “celebrity” – for so long, he was fortunate in the privacy the icon permitted him.
Icon means image, in the visual sense as well. The photo above (I haven’t found out who took it yet), in many ways sums up the public Pete Seeger and manages to be an excellent photo as well. His famous banjo, with its wonderful statement of purpose, creates a distinctive presence at the start. His hand gripping it tightly speaks of determination, and hard work. The simple rope he used as a strap emphasizes the working-class feel of the image. The photo speaks of music, a forthright approach to life and conscience, and manages to reject the standard head shot of lesser famous people. There was nothing wrong with Pete Seeger’s head; he had a face you could put into any period of American history and it would fit in fine. But he knew that it was the ideas and ideals he held that would survive him. Like melodies, they could be passed on.
It’s no accident that the photograph has become the most powerful medium for portraiture. Yes, there are many vacuous portraits, usually of vacuous people, but there is something more that photography can capture that I am groping to find words for. There are things that only a painting or drawing can express, but every medium affects the way the image is read. The photo above, powerful as it is, would become more strident when drawn or painted, bordering on agitprop. A photo better captures the face Pete Seeger gave to the world: determined, resolute, but not strident or stentorian.
For a personal glimpse of Pete Seeger, I recommend Gene Deitch’s account of their friendship. And if you don’t know who Gene is, just go on reading.