Month: April 2017

Singing for Justice

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Stand Up and Sing!: Pete Seeger and the Path to Justice
By Susanna Reich
Illustrated by Adam Gustavson
(Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2017, New York, $17.99)

Best known for such folks perennials as “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” folk musician Pete Seeger sang about social injustice. He performed for ordinary people, including workers organizing for better wages and working conditions. In the 1950s and 60s, his music inspired civil rights activists and those protesting the Vietnam War. He even participated in the fledgling environmental movement, building a boat, The Clearwater, to encourage others to clean his beloved Hudson River. His commitment to these causes at times compromised his career and even endangered his life.

In Stand Up and Sing!, Susanna Reich and illustrator Adam Gustavson bring Seeger’s message to a new generation. Reich’s narrative emphasizes the young singer’s evolving social conscience. For example, she describes his boyhood interest in Native American culture: “He read about Native Americans and loved the idea that, in some tribes, everything was shared.” She also discusses Seeger’s devotion to his craft, the hours he spent practicing his banjo and his early struggle to play and sing simultaneously. In this way, Seeger’s contributions to music and social movements seem the work of an ordinary, if extraordinarily dedicated, human being and not those of a prodigy.

Gustavson’s illustrations further humanize the folk icon. His Seeger never dominates the book’s spreads. Whether he is practicing the banjo, shaving in a cold water flat,  participating in a march, or performing for a crowd, he is always unassuming. Monocolor illustrations of significant moments and objects in the singer’s life – a band poster, a banjo, an image of him with Martin Luther King Jr. – complement the book’s larger paintings. In the book’s most startling spread, Seeger and his wife have just come from a concert where he performed with an African-American artist. The painting shows them in the front seat of their car. Not everyone is happy about integration: someone has thrown a rock at the driver’s side window. The glass splinters into numerous small pieces that spread onto the opposite page. Seeger faces the rock and grips the steering wheel. He and his wife may be frightened, but their commitment is unflinching.

Stand Up and Sing! offers an inspiring introduction to Seeger, his times, and the causes he espoused during his long career. But it is also an introduction to his virtues – compassion, moral courage, a belief in human dignity – that transcend any era.

-Dorothy A. Dahm