How Can I Keep From Singing?

“My life goes on in endless song, above earth’s lamentations;

            I hear the real, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.”


Pete Seeger at the Peabody Conservatory’s 2013 Commencement Proceedings.

Occasionally, there are cultural figures—musicians, poets, politicians, teachers, preachers, and the like—whose fervent visions of justice and peace spread, not through force, but through an ever-widening embrace. Their messages and their creations become larger than themselves, and perhaps, larger than their absence.

Growing up, Pete Seeger’s music seemed a universal constant, gravitic in its ability to pull a listener in: his interpretations of folk songs, children’s songs, and stories seeped into my mind at an early age, thanks to my parents’ record collection. His realization of Abiyoyo has stayed with me many years: music can not only topple giants, it can—more importantly—entrance, enchant, and transform them into something completely other.


Though he had the potency to transform, Seeger’s power—like the power of the magician’s son in Abiyoyo, who in the end gathers everyone to sing
Imagearound his “damn ukulele”—lay in unification. Stories abound regarding his affable ability to make whole audiences join in singing. But his vision extended beyond the experience of a single song around the campfire—indeed, he embraced every song around every campfire. I remember listening to a rather miraculous recording of his, which began with a simple plucking of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Through the power of his narration and omnipresent 5-string-ostinato, the tune transformed into folk songs from throughout the world.  He shared with the audience that the tonal backbone of the songs was always the same, even those minor-mode variations that cropped up in this five-minute world tour; the ease with which he enlivened this structural unity would have made  a Schenkerian blush. Paralleling the illustrations of the townsfolk in Abiyoyo, who are of every creed and color, Seeger’s creativity beckoned all who heard him to sit, think, listen, and sing along to not only their own song, but their neighbors’ songs as well.

“In prison cell and dungeon vile, our thoughts to them are winging,

            When friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?”

Death is sacred: its incumbent feelings of loss, grief, tragedy, or hardship are not to be entered into lightly. The recent articles concerning the “apparent” plight of Classical music that have been flying out of the keyboards of eager doomsayers who bandy about lightly with the word do Seeger’s message an injustice. We are not here to pass judgment: we should, instead, widen our musical embrace.

In 1961, Seeger was found guilty of “Contempt of Congress;” a judge and jury indicted him on ten counts, citing that his actions were subversive and conspiratorial against the United States. Given the chance to speak before the judge passed the sentence, he spoke eloquently of his commitment to his country, his commitment to singing music for all who would listen (“I am proud that I never refused to sing to any group of people because I might disagree with some of the ideas of some of the people listening to me. I have sung for rich and poor, for Americans of every possible political and religious opinion and persuasion, of every race, color, and cred.”), and offered to sing a song for the court that was mentioned in the trial. After the judge refused to allow him, Seeger spoke:

“Well, perhaps you will hear it some other time. A good song can only do good, and I am proud of the songs I have sung. I hope to be able to continue singing these songs for all who want to listen, Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Do I have the right to sing these songs? Do I have the right to sing them anywhere?”

He does, and we do.

While though the tempest loudly roars, I hear the truth, it liveth.

            And though the darkness ‘round me close, songs in the night it giveth.

In my other life, I serve as Music Director at a church in Baltimore. This past Sunday, I had scheduled our choirs to sing an arrangement of the 19th-Century Hymn How Can I Keep From Singing, a hallmark tune by an American Baptist Preacher often sung by Seeger. Of course, I had no idea that Seeger was ill as we were singing. But this musical synchronicity provides comfort, in its own way, because such events point towards a more perfect union. I am reminded that our actions—and particularly our musical ones—can gather others in, rather than keep them out, and in doing so further a balanced justice that not only promotes the right to sing one’s own song, but also emboldens us to listen to, and sing with, our neighbors’ songs as well. This is Seeger’s message: not to refuse our song, or our neighbors—but to create euphony,  a good sound. A good song can only do good. May we find our good song.

 “When friends rejoice, both far and near, how can I keep from singing?”Image