Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Where have all the flowers gone? Memories of Pete Seeger

Pete and Toshi Seeger
My maternal grandfather died not long after my grandmother. When she died, it broke his heart and he didn't seem to have the strength to go on. At the age of nine, I remember feeling deeply touched by this kind of great love.

Pete Seeger's wife Toshi died in July at the age of 91, and seven months later, Pete has followed her into the great yonder, dying close together like my own grandparents 40 years ago. I am feeling sad today, because Pete Seeger's music and activism has influenced my life in many ways.

My parents joke that they missed out on the '60s because they were too busy raising kids. I've always been drawn to that decade because of my rebellious spirit and passion for peace and justice. I grew up listening to Simon & Garfunkel, Peter Paul and Mary, and other folk music, but I don't remember Pete Seeger as a child. Like Dar Williams pondered, it's hard for many of us to remember how we first learned of Pete--he was in our DNA. I consciously discovered him (and other activist-musicians like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Judy Collins) as an adult, and these are my cherished memories of his music:

  • Listening to "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "If I Had a Hammer," and "Turn Turn Turn" as a child, and later playing these songs on the guitar
  • Group singing in all sorts of places, using the "Rise Up Singing" songbook (Pete Seeger was a huge champion of group singing and wrote the introduction and did the illustrations for this songbook)
  • Three-year-old Christopher's fondness for a great album by Pete and Arlo Guthrie, and when asked by his speech therapist who his favorite musician was, he said "Pete Seeger!"
  • Discovering how much I loved Bruce Springsteen (and bluegrass) via his tribute to Pete Seeger ("We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions"), which is one of my favorite albums
  • Watching him sing "This Land Is Your Land" with Bruce Springsteen at President Obama's first inauguration...I can't watch this video without crying, especially now!

  • Singing "Wimoweh," "The Garden Song," and "This Land Is Your Land" for several years with the kids at my sons' elementary school...these are three of their favorite songs, and I plan to tell them all about Pete Seeger next time I go into Nicholas' class!
  • Remembering how I sang "We Shall Overcome" with the kids in Nicholas' kindergarten class last year during Black History Month, and the kids all held hands and sang with gusto and passion...how things have changed since Pete sang that song with the freedom marchers...
  • Hearing stories about some of my favorite singers jamming with and being influenced by Pete:

  • Singing "We Shall Overcome" and "If I Had a Hammer" with our band, Consorting with Papists...we usually close our sets with acapella "We Shall Overcome"...so moving.

  • His continued passionate activism...Dar Williams talks about Pete showing up at various events around upstate New York, to lend his voice to causes he cared about. Last August, a month after Toshi died, Pete performed in New York to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of the treaty signed by the Iroquois and the Dutch, and remembered the 68th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. In September he performed at Farm Aid.  As Dr. Reagon said, "He has not broken stride in any way," even into his 90s.

The world has lost a great talent and an amazing man. He lived his life and made art to help the less fortunate and do what he could to make the world a better place.

Bruce Springsteen said this about Pete: "At some point, Pete Seeger decided he'd be a walking, singing reminder of all of America's history. He'd be a living archive of America's music and conscience, a testament to the power of song and culture, to nudge history along...to push American events toward more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people."

He loved his wife, and reading about her own great (untold) accomplishments and steady rock presence in his life, it's easy to see why it was hard to live on much longer. I love the fact they met during the war, when so many Americans felt hatred toward the Japanese (even Japanese Americans).

Rest in peace, Pete, and thanks for the wonderful music that spread peace and justice throughout the world!

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