In late January, a short news clip announced the death of Pete Seeger, one of the most influential song -writers of the last half-century. The announcement immediately sent me back in time, erasing fifty years as I drifted back to my youth. I was holding my newly purchased guitar, my fingers raw from masochistically pushing down on the steel strings until I mastered those three chords; G, C and D that could accompany most songs, but especially my first, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”
I loved to sing. During the sixties, the Beatles and Rolling Stones were revolutionaries in the music scene. For whatever reason, sides were chosen. One could be a Stones fan or a Beatles groupie, but it was sacrilegious to claim enjoyment of both groups. But folk music drifted through both camps, and even in those high school groups desperately trying to forge identities, Seeger’s music was a commonality.
It was a time of sit-ins and passive protests. Seeger, a proud American, never shied away from voicing his concerns for the country he loved. He did so with memorable tunes that will never escape into obscurity.
By chance, looking for background noise, I flipped on the television this morning and was greeted by a celebration of Seeger’s life; the occasion, his ninetieth birthday held in Madison Square Garden. Joan Baez, no longer the long- haired hippy, was standing at the microphone—‘gone to graveyards every one…’
The tribute and music continue as I write, lost in reverie.
‘We are climbing Jacob’s ladder brothers, sisters all. Every round of generation, brothers, sisters all….’
Music unites us, each with our memories. Twenty thousand people sit in The Garden, each one singing, everyone knowing the words. The captured image of the audience is but a minute reflection of the millions who have strummed the chords and sat around camp fires or gone ‘hootenannies,’ in their time. All these years later, the music reminds me of who I was and who I’ve become.
I’m told that the day Pete Seeger died, just short of his ninety-fifth birthday; he chopped some wood before continuing on his journey. There’s something so bittersweet about that knowledge. If tomorrow comes, we’ll need some logs to keep us warm. If not for me, then someone else may benefit from what I do today…
‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from my home…freedom…’
Maturity has doused my zealous passion about so many issues. I’ve never lost my deep convictions, but I’m more likely to write a cheque rather than join a march. Many times over the years I’ve wondered what happened to me, questioning if the fire that once burned in my belly about injustice has turned to apathy. Have I become part of the establishment I once scorned?
‘We shall overcome…some day.’
Bruce Springsteen finished the concert talking about performing at Obama’s inauguration with Seeger, and I pause to think about what a deep sense of gratification it must have been for Pete to stand on a stage celebrating the election of America’s first black president. Imagine, something that Seeger wrote in the fifties became the theme song for all injustice and continues to thread its power through a few simple chords.
‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted…’
How easily Seeger’s passing might have gone by me unnoticed. At some point his name might have come up and I likely would have started the conversation with ‘whatever happened to him?’ I suspect the man really wouldn’t have minded one bit that I didn’t know he’d died. From all I’ve learned, he lived a simple life, letting the words and music do all the talking.
I remember clearly the day John Lennon was murdered, the collective grief of the world as his passing was announced. It felt different. Lennon’s gift was a soulful intimacy that cracked open his heart, letting the seeds of activism scatter, intermingled with love songs. I would have needed to learn a lot more chords on my guitar to play his music. I can still mourn that which we never heard, but in Pete Seeger’s passing, I do feel a need to celebrate the gifts he left for us all.
Sometimes I’m harsh with myself. I’ll tell people who claim to be some famous figure reincarnated, that I was likely a scullery maid in a previous life, if such existed. I often feel that way today, believing that the words I drop on endless sheets of paper or post on my computer screen are a wasteful use of my time. I should be doing this…or that, and then I watch a special about a celebrated, ordinary man whose words ignited dreams and remind myself that perhaps somewhere, someone might be moved by something I’ve said or written. Perhaps I too, in some way, have changed the world.
In Pete Seeger’s words, I’ll pause for a moment longer before going back to this…or that.
‘Words, words, words in my old songs and stories How much of truth remains? If I only understood them, While my lips pronounced them, Would not my life be changed?’
Tags: Bruce Springsteen, Flowers Gone, home, Joan Baez, John Lennon, Madison Square Garden, Pete Seeger, something