IF IT SEEMED like Pete Seeger, who died on January 27, 2014, at the age of ninety-four, was present and deeply involved in nearly every key cultural moment of the twentieth and early twenty-first century—a real-life Forest Gump—that is because he actually was. Yet Seeger, a lifelong progressive, and a dedicated small “c” communist, was always motivated more by the power of his beliefs than by a desire to be in step with history. He openly and early embraced radical social and political positions now considered simply liberal, held on to his principles long past their fashionable utility, recognized and apologized for the mistakes he made (primarily during his time as a capital “C” communist), and, always undeterred, kept fighting for peace, justice, and a sustainable environment till the day he died.

Throughout his life and his remarkable musical career, Pete insisted that his art serve the simple and direct purpose of communicating the joy of song and the social benefits of people singing out together to forge a better world. He sang, marched, and demonstrated in support of union workers, to protest racial and religious intolerance, to promote multiple antiwar movements, to fight for clean water and the renewed health of his beloved Hudson River, to inspire the development of sane energy policies, and to resist crony capitalism and allied forms of economic exploitation. At Occupy Wall Street, a ninety-two-year-old Pete Seeger was very much there. But mostly, he sang simple American songs. He sang because he believed it was the song, not the singer, which mattered.

Alternately celebrated and reviled, blacklisted and feted, Pete never took himself too seriously—never thought he was special or particularly deserving of privilege. He freely shared the wisdom acquired through his unwavering willingness to learn how the world was changing. When approached on the streets of Beacon—where he and his wife lived for over fifty years—or while standing on line in the hardware store or the post office, Pete always had a smile and most often found time to chat.

But for me, beyond his grandfatherly kindness was his insistence that the enduring and real value of folk music—and of all forms of art—should not be confused with its commercial value. In his gentle insistence that the song sung by a mother to her infant, or by an anonymous field worker lightening his load, is just as important as the folk music sung by professional entertainers, he fostered the recognition that art is not simply currency to be traded within the commercial marketplace, but rather a part of a conversation that links people together and forms community.

The first time I got to play with Pete Seeger, our band backed him as he sang and spoke, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” to attendees of a conference on the politics of sustainability. After he finished, my bandmates and I sang a song that Steve Earle had written in his honor—a spirited sing-a-long called “Steve’s Hammer (For Pete)” that Pete told us he had not yet heard. Even then, I knew that this would be the song I’d sing in his memory.

One of these days I’m gonna lay this hammer down
And I won’t have to drag this weight around
When there ain’t no hunger
And there ain’t no pain
Then I won’t have to swing this thing
One of these days I’m gonna lay this hammer down –
Yeah, one of these days I’m gonna lay this hammer down.

One of these nights I’m gonna sing a different tune
All night long beneath the silvery moon
When the war is over and the union’s strong
Won’t sing no more angry songs
One of these nights I’m gonna sing a different tune

Someday when my struggle’s through
I won’t have to strike
Until then, all I can do
Is let my hammer fly

One of these days I’m gonna lay my hammer down
Leave my burden resting on the ground
When the air don’t choke you and the ocean’s clean
And kids don’t die for gasoline
One of these days I’m gonna lay this hammer down

John Henry was a might man
Worked his whole life long
When he made his hammer ring
He always sang this song

One of these days I’m gonna lay this hammer down
And I won’t have to drag this weight around
When there ain’t no hunger
And there ain’t no pain
Then I won’t have to swing this thing
One of these days I’m gonna lay this hammer down –

Yeah, one of these days I’m gonna lay this hammer down.

David A. Ross is the former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. He currently chairs the MFA in Art Practice at the School of Visual Arts, New York, and performs with the band RED.