Pete Seeger and the Use (and Beauty) of Congregational Singing

Pete Seeger.  Ever heard of him? In the 1950s, 1960s, and even now the mention of his name can elicit different feelings.  Chase by the McCarthey Investigation and the FBI for what they deemed subversive and anti-Vietnam rhetoric and singing.  Some saw him as unpatriotic for his lack of support of war in general, and Vietnam specifically.  Some saw him as patriotic for expressing his views on injustice and racial discord in the world.  His aim, he said, was to bring people together.

Why does Pete Seeger intrigue me?  Seeger had a particular habit in his concerts.  First of all, he was an extraordinary folk musician who could play about any stringed instrument that came his way—even a fretless banjo (as seen here on The Johnny Cash Show).  Second of all, he had such an engaging manner about him as he played and interacted with the audience.  He just seemed like a nice guy.

But what intrigues me most about Seeger is the way he encouraged audience participation in his singing.  I honestly don’t care much for his studio work (just him singing alone).  But the energy that developed in listening to him sing live—and then when the audience joins him . . . few things are as stirring as this.

Seeger went on tour in 1964, with the first stop of the tour being in Melbourne, Australia.  The point of this tour was to share some American folk tunes with the Australian people.  In the clip below (approximately eight minutes in length), he shares some backstory on Negro spirituals, then begins singing “Down By the Riverside.”  With just his voice and his banjo (how can anyone go wrong with a banjo?), he shares the tune, then helps them with the four parts so they can sing harmony, then he just let’s go (especially on the part of the song that goes, “Ain’t gonna study war no mo’ . . . .”).

Seeger understood that if you could get people from different backgrounds (liberals, conservatives, different races, different creeds) singing together, then (right or wrong) a number of walls would come down.  There is something decidedly unifying in a room full of people singing together.  And the more passionate one is about the content and subject of that song, the more passionate the singing—and it becomes contagious.

In the church world, we call this ‘congregational singing’, and outside of the preaching of the Word and observance of the ordinances/sacraments, it is the most critical part of our times of corporate worship.  Why is this so important?  It brings different voices of the body of Christ in one accord.  And what do Christians have to sing about?

When my wife and I went on our 10th anniversary vacation to my sister’s time share in Cocoa Beach, Florida, we worship at Sovereign Grace Church in Titusville, Florida.  It was a two-hour service.  The first hour was singing, the second hour was preaching.  What I noticed about that first hour, every time any mention of the resurrection occurred, they would start cheering and the singing would become more energetic!  Suddenly, I was shaken out of myself and the newness of the place and just going through the motions and began to focus on the what (or should I say ‘Whom’) we were singing about: a risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!

Pete Seeger’s legacy, whatever else may be said, is that of bringing others to sing.  In a recent edition of PBS’ American Masters, Seeger noted that the most incredible experiences he’s had at concerts was when the people joined him in singing!  May our chu


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