Friday, October 2, 2009

More on Pete Seeger

Hello friends,

I've been in blogger hibernation for a long time, but I haven't forgotten you! Sometimes it gets hard to pick up the pen and be creative on schedule, and sometimes life just takes us to other places for a while. But I've decided to plunge in again. I thought I would start by sharing an article I wrote for the latest issue of Penguin Eggs Magazine, a reflection about going to Pete Seeger's 90th birthday concert this past May. (By the way, if you are a fan of Canadian folk music, you should subscribe to Penguin Eggs.)

I can be pretty cynical about hero worship. I don’t have much patience with the impulse to elevate human beings to saint-like proportions. But a few months ago, I excitedly jumped in my car and drove to New York City for the weekend. My motivation: a chance to be in the audience for Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Gardens.

So what it is about Pete Seeger that overcomes my jaded cynicism? I guess I can’t imagine another musician who has influenced me more, or had more impact on folk music. I honestly believe I wouldn’t be performing and teaching all over Canada—indeed I wonder how many festivals, camps, concert series, and house concerts would even be here—if it weren’t for Pete Seeger.

Regardless of whether you are a fan of Pete Seeger, there is no denying his profound influence on all of us involved in folk music. There’s no way to sum up that influence in a short article, but here are some things that come to mind when I think of Pete Seeger:

I think of the many concerts I attended as a kid, where an older lanky guy with twinkly blue eyes—dressed in a flannel shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers—enthusiastically coaxed thousands of us to sing together in beautiful harmony. Sometimes he told stories, or played whistle, or sang in foreign languages. He had a casual, friendly way of speaking that made you feel like you were sitting in his living room. And he talked and sang about ordinary people from all over—people from the mountains of Appalachia, the mines of South Africa, the river valleys of New York State, or the cities of India and Northern Ireland.

He always had news to share, about striking farm workers, the struggle against apartheid, or the river that ran by his house in Beacon, New York. There were people to remember—Woody Guthrie, Jose Marti, Victor Jara. There was celebration, of simple things like maple syrup, or important things like the end of segregation in the south. And there was always more work to be done. So why not sing as we work?

I think of songs. Thousands of songs. Songs like “Guantanamera,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Wimoweh,” and “We Shall Overcome” that Pete helped spread around the world. I think of all the songs I learned from my mom, a red diaper baby from the Bronx who grew up singing folk music. I think of the songs I’ve learned from other musicians, or recordings, or Sing Out! Magazine—a magazine that Pete helped usher into being. And I think of informal gatherings across Canada and the US where people get together to sing, purely for fun.

I think of banjos. Lots of them. And all the people who were inspired by his book “How to Play the 5-String Banjo.” I think of his banjo, inscribed with the words, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

I think of Pete, appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, refusing to discuss any people or organizations he had sung for, and insisting on his right to sing where and for whomever he pleased. And if he could just sing them a few songs, surely they would comprehend his love for his country.

I think of the college campuses and church basements and summer camps where Pete sang during the blacklist years. How he managed to survive those lean times and foster a new audience for folk music, creating a grassroots performing circuit in the process.

I think of the Hudson River, which used to be so polluted that you couldn’t swim or fish in it. And I think of the organization Pete founded in 1969 to save that river: Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. His idea: build a replica of an old river sloop, and sail it up and down the river, educating people about the river. Forty years later, the Hudson River is clean enough to swim in, largely due to the efforts of Clearwater.

Most of all, when I think of Pete Seeger, I think of an unflagging optimism that permeates everything he does—a belief that if we can somehow pull ourselves together, if each of us can do our part, we just might be able to save the planet and live together in peace.

It’s an optimism I find hard to maintain sometimes. And yet, here he was on May 3rd, at 90 years old, playing his banjo in Madison Square Gardens and leading 18,000 people in singing “Amazing Grace.” In the middle of the song, he paused, and told the story of John Newton, the slaveship operator who had a change of heart, found god, and became an anti-slavery activist. Newton eventually wrote dozens of hymns, among them “Amazing Grace.” If a man like John Newton can change, Pete seemed to be saying, surely there is hope for all of us. And if 18,000 people can sing together in harmony, surely we can overcome our differences and find peaceful solutions to our problems.

Amazing Grace, indeed. Thanks, Pete. Here’s to you and your 90 years.

Published in Penguin Eggs Magazine, Autumn 2009 issue

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