Rev. Kirk Loadman-Copeland
His father was a Harvard-trained professor of musicology and his mother, who trained at the Paris Conservatory of Music, was a classical violinist. But he never cared for classical music, which may explain why he began to play the ukulele at the age of 13. He also learned to play the guitar. In 1936, when he was seventeen, he fell in love with a five-string banjo. He heard it at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in western North Carolina near Asheville. Perhaps the banjo chose him, since a person once said that he actually looked like a banjo. He would later say, "I lost my heart to the old-fashioned five-string banjo played mountain style."
At the time, the banjo was thought of as a "white" instrument, the province of poor Appalachian farmers, but the truth was that the banjo went back to the early days of slavery in America. The African-influenced banjo had a body made out of a gourd and a wooden stick for the neck.
In the fall, this novice banjo player began attending Harvard, his father's alma mater, but dropped out two years later when he failed an exam. He decided to explore America with his banjo in hand. He began learning folk songs as he traveled across the country hitchhiking and hopping freight trains. By 1940, he had traveled with his five-string banjo through forty-eight states. That year in New York City he met Woody Guthrie at a concert hosted by the John Steinbeck Committee to benefit farm workers. Guthrie became the young man's most important teacher. The lessons were not just about music, they were also about social justice.
While he loved to sing, his vocal range was limited. C minor was too high for him. His solution was to have a longer neck installed on his banjo. The first one added two frets, later his custom banjos would have three additional frets. This made the songs he wrote fit his voice, and they in turn, made it easy for people to sing along. You have probably sung some of his songs. One came from lines in a famous Soviet novel written by Mikhail Sholokhov and published in the 1930s. The lines in English were "Where are the flowers? The girls have plucked them./ Where are the girls? They're all married./ Where are the men? They're all in the army." Pete Seeger rephrased the lines and added two more: "Long time passing" and "When will we ever learn?" You know the song as Where Have All the Flowers Gone? It is a wonderful example of the ways in which Pete Seeger made both beautiful music and beautiful justice for more than 50 years.
Its why in the 1960s he hand-lettered the following words on the head of his banjo, "This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender."