Pete Seeger: The Singer Who Forever Changed My Life

While on mission to share world music with Western audiences, he proved that protest songs can change the world, says Israeli iconic folk singer Chava Alberstein.

Chava Alberstein
Chava Alberstein
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Chava Alberstein
Chava Alberstein

The one singer who influenced my life above all others was undoubtedly Pete Seeger. When I was still a young girl – when all my friends were arguing over who was better, Elvis or Cliff – I went by myself to Haifa, to a large, cold movie theater called Ora. I bought a ticket in the lobby, and my heart pounded with excitement. And there he was, ascending the bare stage draped in several guitars, a banjo and a ukulele. It was hard to tell when he was speaking and when he was singing; it all blended together into a kind of seamless conversation with the audience.

Back then, the audience wasn’t as professional as it is today, and it didn’t dominate the space. It was attentive and hesitant. It sang only when asked to sing, or hummed cautiously out of a sense of complete identification with every word.

I absorbed the quiet, the concentration, the strength of every word as it was spoken aloud into the ears of many people – one person’s need to have many other people share in the experiences he has undergone, the discoveries he has made, the journeys he has taken.

Pete Seeger opened the Western world’s ears to songs from Cuba, Russia and Japan. He even sang in Yiddish.

Over and over, we use the phrase “cultural hero.” I don’t really believe in heroism in the cultural context, but in a sense of mission, definitely. Pete Seeger had a mission – to make people hear the songs of other people and find the common denominator among them all. And he did it in the purest, most basic way possible.

There’s no interview in which a singer who is considered a protest singer isn’t asked, somewhat cynically, if he thinks his songs have changed anything in the world. The answers are sometimes a bit embarrassing. I don’t know to what degree singing changes the world, but because I’m part of the world, and it has greatly changed me, it seems that at least some small part of the world has been changed.

I want to end with a little poem by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet that Pete Seeger adapted into a song.

Many singers have sung this song, especially rock singers, since folk music is a part of rock’s roots.

I Come and Stand at Every Door

By Nazim Hikmet, English translation by Jeanette Turner

I come and stand at every door
But none can hear my silent tread
I knock and yet remain unseen
For I am dead, for I am dead.

I’m only seven, although I died
In Hiroshima long ago.
I’m seven now, as I was then –
When children die, they do not grow.

My hair was scorched by swirling flame;
My eyes grew dim, my eyes grew blind.
Death came and turned my bones to dust,
And that was scattered by the wind.

I need no fruit, I need no rice.
I need no sweets, or even bread;
I ask for nothing for myself,
For I am dead, for I am dead.

All that I ask is that for peace
You fight today, you fight today.
So that the children of this world
May live and grow and laugh and play!

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