First Church Celebrates Pete Seeger, Folk Musician and Activist

Community members celebrated the 100th birthday of famed folk musician and activist Pete Seeger with a concert and fundraiser at the First Church in Oberlin, United Church of Christ last Thursday, March 28. Annie Patterson and Charlie King, longtime friends of Seeger, performed songs inspired by Seeger’s commitment to labor organizing, as well as other selections from the songbook that Patterson created with Peter Blood, OC ’68, Rise Up Singing and Rise Again.

Seeger gained national fame for his politically progressive songwriting in the ’60s but was blacklisted following his refusal to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Oberlin remained one of the few places that still allowed Seeger to perform. 

“During that time, there were a few places that always would give him a venue, and Oberlin College was top of the list,” said David Finke, OC ’63, one of the concert organizers. “So he performed here … it filled Finney Chapel and there was a real love affair between Pete and his audience.”

Seeger continued to perform at Oberlin throughout his career and was selected as the Class of 1972 commencement speaker before he passed away in 2014. Patterson and King, who worked closely with Seeger, decided to do a tour in honor of his 100th birthday and reached out to Finke in order to include Oberlin as one of the stops. 

“[They] wrote to me and said, ‘We’re having a 15-city tour honoring the 100th birthday of Pete Seeger,’ [and asked], ‘Can we stop at Oberlin on the 28th?’” Finke said. “Well, that [was] spring break, [but] 60 people turned up and it was really high energy!”

College junior Wren Fiocco, who attended the concert, agreed. 

“I had a good time,” they wrote in an email to the Review. “The messages in a lot of the songs that were performed were pretty powerful, and some of the others were more lighthearted in nature but were about important social justice-related themes, including xenophobia, walls, labor organizing, and violence against women.”

Concert-goers were encouraged to sing along with Patterson and King, which Fiocco believed added power to the performance. 

“A lot of the songs were pretty easy to pick up and sing along to,” Fiocco said. “I think there can be a lot of power in singing together, and in telling stories through song, and it was also really fun to sing with everyone.”

Sarah Johnson, OC ’15, an Oberlin resident, echoed Fiocco’s thoughts. 

“I was really touched to see so many people there and left with an unexpected sense of connection,” she wrote in an email to the Review. “I think music can be an enormously powerful tool in organizing, and while protest music as a tool has fallen out of favor somewhat among activists of our generation, for itself, singing is still something that does me good in body and soul.”

The event also doubled as a fundraiser for First Church’s sanctuary project, which aims to reorganize the church’s facilities in order to offer sanctuary to people at risk of being deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

“First Church went through a year-long process of discerning whether they could declare a sanctuary congregation,” Finke said. “[So far] they have remodeled parts of the basement so that there’s a very private but ample bedroom that could hold up to a family of four or a single individual.”

Finke pointed out that although much work has been done, and someone seeking sanctuary could be immediately accommodated, the church would like to do more and was hoping to raise money for an ADA-compliant bathroom through the concert. 

“I thought, gee, if we raise $300 or $400, it’d be great,” he said. “We cleared over $1,600. I think after hearing [the reasoning behind the sanctuary church movement] … people just got out their checkbook and put some in the basket.” 

The concert was a resounding success on multiple fronts, celebrating the legacy of a great artist and supporting an initiative to help the Oberlin community.