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The Seeger Saga Continues
The Seeger Saga Continues

The passing of folk music icon Pete Seeger has offered a chance to revisit the themes the 1950’s and ‘60’s when Seeger made his mark on American culture. Practically every news outlet (including this blog!) has paid homage to this remarkable man, and I’ve heard of dozens of UU congregations who are planning to use Seeger in their services.

But more than how we honor one man’s legacy, the discussion of Seeger’s passing is a microcosm of cultural and generational perspectives. For lots of us, especially those who identify strongly with the protest ethos of the ‘60’s era counterculture, this is truly a time of personal grief. Seeger’s life was interwoven with Unitarian Universalism, his songs are sung in our faith communities, his music resonates with our values, and so many of our members feel a profound connection with his music, we could imagine our entire Association dressed in mourning black for the next two months.

However, it’s also true that not everyone identifies so closely with Seeger. Those of us who are under the age of 50, or who didn’t grow up middle class, white, educated and liberal, may not have that those same ties to his music. Not that these generalizations apply to everyone - some people who grew up in the 60’s may not be Seeger fans, and plenty of us who grew up in the 90’s adore his music. Regardless, if we universalize our heartache then we don’t make space for other experiences, a point which is easy to lose sight of in our grief.

So how do we honor his passing without marginalizing some of the folks in our communities? We can use his music to bridge experiences and generations, but you’ll never build a bridge if you assume everyone is already on the same side of the river. Consider two possible lines from this Sunday’s service at the imaginary First Church of the First Parish of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“Today is a difficult day, but we are glad to be here together to share our great sorrow over the loss of one man who we all knew and loved, and who stood for everything we hold dear: Pete Seeger."
versus
“With the passing of legendary American folk singer Pete Seeger this week, a man who was closely connected with Unitarian Universalism in his time, we take the opportunity to look at how his music is one profound way our UU principles have been shared in the world.”

See the difference? Hear the assumptions? Notice the awareness, or lack therof? Not that anyone should use these exact words, just that we should be careful to make sure we talk about Seeger in a way that helps people understand his message regardless of how closely they felt connected to him. Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford puts it this way:

Some of my colleagues have wisely, in my opinion, pointed out that the grief over "Uncle Pete" is not universal ... if you are Gen X or younger, or grew up in a conservative family, no, this doesn't feel like losing a family member. ... if you do any of the following, you're alienating some of your members. DON'T DO IT: * Imply that if someone doesn't know who Pete Seeger was, they're ignorant * Act as if those who are grieving are more special, because they know the Truth * Assume a commonality that doesn't exist * Privilege your cultural context over theirs. Really, the latter is what it's about. Just because this was someone who profoundly influenced your life does not mean than someone else is "less than" because they don't feel the same way. And to be fair ... if you're one of the ones who is feeling "Uh, what's the big deal?" ... be sensitive to those who are feeling nostalgic, or weepy. 

It's all just good manners, really.

Though this discussion is about Pete Seeger, it's a great illustration of the kinds of dynamics we need to pay attention to all the time if we want our faith communities to be truly welcoming. And on that note, here’s to Pete Seeger’s timeless message:

[youtube Ezyd40kJFq0]

About the Author

  • Carey McDonald is the UUA's Executive Vice President. He's a lifelong UU who has worked in nonprofit, government, political and progressive organizations. He lives Medford, MA with his wife, Sarah and two sons, Julian and Hosea.

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