Petition seeks Nobel Prize for Pete Seeger

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If a pair of Bay Area folksingers and cultural activists have their way, Pete Seeger, the now 88-year-old icon of music for peace and justice, will be nominated for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize.

For decades, Seeger has created or popularized many of the peace and justice movement’s greatest anthems — “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “The Big Muddy,” “We Shall Overcome” and others.

Now his Nobel nomination, the brainchild of Eleanor Walden and Eliot Kenin, outstanding folksingers in their own right, is the subject of an Internet petition campaign addressed to the American Friends Service Committee. (As a recipient of the Peace Prize, in 1947, the AFSC is entitled to send nominations to the Norwegian Nobel Committee for the worldwide high honor.)

In a little over six weeks, the effort has garnered nearly 6,000 signatures. Links can be found at many folk-music-related sites besides the petition’s initial home on the social interest site . On a recent Sunday, the site featured the Seeger petition as one of its most popular entries.

“As a prominent musician, his songs, messages and performance style, typified by getting the audience to sing, have worked to engage other people, particularly the youth, in movements to end the Vietnam War, ban nuclear weapons, work for international solidarity, the civil rights movement and environmental responsibility,” Walden and Kenin wrote to the AFSC. “It is time that a cultural worker receives the recognition that this work has great influence and global reach, that it is not only a medium of entertainment but of education, inspiration and action.”

The two continued, “Pete knit the world together” with songs from around the globe and educated generations by singing songs from the country’s great popular struggles.

In a telephone interview, Walden said, “What is unusual about this effort is that to the best of my knowledge, no Nobel nomination was ever started at the grassroots. This is the first time it’s the people who are proposing a nomination.”

Walden said that for a long time she didn’t tell Seeger, “because he has always said, give honors to others.” Finally, she said, she wrote him a long letter “to which he responded positively.”

Walden said she first met Seeger at “Sunday sings” in New York City’s Washington Square Park in the mid-1940s, and worked with him on projects such as the Woodstock Folk Festival, which she organized in the early ’60s.

Each year the AFSC puts out a call, which it posts on its web site and encourages staff members to circulate, to develop a pool of nomination proposals. Walden and Kenin’s letter has been forwarded to AFSC’s Nobel Peace Prize Nominating Committee, which prepares a recommendation for the AFSC Board.

Born in 1919, Pete Seeger’s role as a leading folksinger and movement activist dates back to 1940, when he and Woody Guthrie helped form the Almanac Singers. During the witch-hunt McCarthy era of the late ’40s and ’50s, Seeger was repeatedly targeted for blacklisting and red-baiting. His performances were cancelled; he was indicted for contempt of Congress. Undaunted, during those years he wrote and co-wrote such songs as “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Together with Lee Hayes, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, he formed the renowned singing group The Weavers in 1950.

In 1969, Seeger added the environmental movement to his causes with the launch of the sloop Clearwater into the Hudson River. His work continues to be an active force in today’s civil rights, peace and justice struggles.

mbechtel @pww.org