America lost a great man this week in Pete Seeger (1919-2014). If you’re not familiar with his work generally, you’re more than likely know as few of his songs. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “If I Had as Hammer,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” and dozens of others (not to mention his output with the fantastic trio Peter, Paul, and Mary). Seeger was one of this country’s preeminent folk singers. His songs were the voice of the people — the downtrodden, the laborers, the fighters. Through him projected the sounds of strife, liberty, happiness, and sorrow. Moreover, Seeger was a storyteller. His ability to weave story into song, even with just a few, simple words, was magical. And we all know just how captivating a good story can be.
This week also saw the Grammy Awards. (And bear with me if you think I’ve gone off on a tangent.) One of its more memorable performance was that of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s performance. (You know the one, Madonna, couples getting married, etc.) Like them or dislike them, there’s no denying their amazing rise to fame from online goofiness (or so I perceived, see “And We Danced“) to legitimate artists. Surely drive, talent, and making the right connections helped propel the duo forward, but Macklemore is also a great storyteller. He takes the risk of being personal in his music, whether he’s talking about family and beliefs (“One Love”) or shopping and money (“Thrift Shop”). We all know there are plenty of songs out there about nothing, so it’s reasonable enough that everyone should take notice when a song appears about something. Macklemore’s not a folk musician like Seeger, but songs like his anthem “One Love” work in much the same way by supporting a group of people who can’t (or maybe won’t) speak out for themselves.
Except…wait. There’s kink in that train of thought. Seeger flourished during a time when not everyone could have a voice. When the speechmakers and song writers spoke for people, and occasionally by them. When the droves of humanity needed and heeded support from individuals who believed in them. In this day and age, we don’t really need others to speak, or sing, for us. These days, anyone with access to the Internet and a computer can take to the streets of the web and say what they want. We can, and do quite regularly and with insistence, speak for ourselves. We don’t need the storytellers. We are the storytellers. And through our words we connect, transmit emotion, and find ways to keep talking. We are followed and we are the followers.
So this begs the question, do we even need people like Seeger and Macklemore? Do we need people to tell our stories anymore? I say we certainly do. For as loud as the Internet is, in order for a story to transcend above the choir of the masses, it needs to be uttered by a single, strong voice. We may choose to rally behind that voice or strike it down, but that one voice needs to be heard in order to get the message, any message, out. There’s a reason why Macklemore, Seeger, that one great blogger you follow, and that single content creator you stole an idea from have found success. They’ve tread a singular path towards becoming that one voice that resonates with the many. And they inspire our stories and our desires to tell them, write about them, sing about them. We need those voices to rise and to motivate so that the cycle of storytelling continues.
If you have a chance to see footage of Pete Seeger on TV or the Internet, notice how much he encourages the audience to join in. Notice how many times he stops singing while the audience continues the song. That’s his legacy and the legacy of great storytelling. The words will live on even if those who first uttered them can no longer speak.