Saturday, February 1, 2014

Pete Seeger

I went to a tiny elementary school in suburban New York. Four classrooms of K-3, Kindergarten had their own room, but the rest of the grades were mixed. The gym doubled as a cafeteria and tripled as an auditorium. Every morning we gathered in the gym, with the lunch tables all pushed to one side and sat in a semi-circle for morning announcements and the pledge of allegiance. The semi-circle faced the wall where the teachers stood, or whoever it was who ran this morning ritual and there was a plug-in portable record player on which, every morning played Pete Seeger singing This Land Is Your Land. That song was just part of life. I thought the "New York islands" were the "New York highlands" and the "gulf steam waters" were the "ghost stream waters" which leant a nice mood. Likewise, I didn't realize until I was an adult that there wasn't a person named Glory and she didn't have something called a Luyah (I thought it was, perhaps, an instrument of some sort). Glory, glory hallelujah.

My parents who I spent my whole life trying to get away from, were big Pete Seeger fans and we went to myriad concerts where the kids all got shoved on stage to sing with Pete. I hated it. I hated those concerts because I was shy, and awkward and inhibited and I did not want to go up on stage to be adorable for the grown ups, and once forced up there was mortified and didn't know what the heck to do with myself. I was a sullen kid, I didn't twirl or dance or sing, I wanted to disappear, but deep down, I did like the music, would have enjoyed it much more if there hadn't been expectations of participation.

It wasn't until I got older that I rediscovered Pete Seeger and learned about Woody Guthrie and found out Pete wasn't just a strumming old guy into group sing-alongs, but a spectacularly, one of a kind human being. When I had kids, I bought a Pete Seeger CD and I laid in bed with one and then the other, every night listening to This Land is Your Land, and Michael Row the Boat, and If I Had A Hammer, I'd lay there and wonder what I would do if I had a hammer... I still didn't know all that much about Pete Seeger until I saw a documentary on PBS which is one of the best things I've ever seen. I can't think of another person with more integrity or authenticity than Pete Seeger. He was courageous, he stood by his principals and he paid a high price. But he never lost his joy or idealism, he never stopped contributing and he seems to have created community wherever he went and that is an incredible thing. Pete Seeger could have capitalized on his fame, his living-legend status, and lived in a mansion, lounged in the tropics, but Pete {because I doubt he'd want to be called Mr. Seeger}, was not affected by fame and how many resist that lure? How large is blue collar Bruce's house? Pete Seeger stood in the snow with a picket sign until his last days, he lived in a farmhouse, sang around a campfire and invited all of us to light campfires of our own. He knew in his heart what was right and he spread his gospel day in and day out by how he lived his life, by the work that he did.

I saw Pete Seeger play at the Newport Folk Festival a few years ago, he was so old and it took him a while to get his banjo on and his voice wavered, but he had such a rare and beautiful soul it was something to see. Living history. When I heard he died last week, I heard a lot of people comment or post things on social media about how sad it was, but I wasn't sad at all, I felt joy and sunshine, seriously, it occurred to me to be sad, but I wasn't, I felt a ray of sunshine on my face. Pete Seeger was 94-years-old and lived as fully, I think, as anyone can. He left an indelible mark on our culture, on our world, left an incredible body of work that will live on, he left children and grandchildren who he had the privilege of seeing grow. He had talent which he used fully, and I read he was chopping wood six weeks before he died. In his eighties, he was out in the snow with a picket sign protesting the Gulf War. What is more beautiful than living a full, long life, a complete and joyful life and then dying well? Nothing sad in that, nothing at all, that is a fine example of the circle of life. I have no doubt Pete Seeger will rest in the peace with which he lived his life. If there's anything beyond, then he's reunited with his beloved wife. Rejoice. Pay tribute, be inspired, but a good life and a good death are fine things indeed. That's something you learn from cancer. You long for and crave a good death, an elderly, quiet death, all the while knowing they're unlikely. You see and hear of too many people dying too young, prematurely, unnaturally, you see their bodies go through way too much. Natural death becomes a beautiful, beautiful thing. Every birthday becomes a victory, every milestone a winning lottery ticket. We fear one kind of death, while celebrating another. We don't worry about getting old, we celebrate it. Here's to you Pete, well done sir, well done.


  1. Wow. This is terrific. As I write, my dear 91-year-old aunt -- last of that generation on all sides of my family including my inlaws -- has been taken off life support at her request, and is in and out of consciousness. In her low-profile way, she also lived a beautiful life: mother of four, a working registered nurse for 50 years, and the person who stayed with my own mother, who was dying of cancer, day and night for the last two weeks of Mom's life in 1998, giving us all indescribable peace of mind and comfort at a scary, sad time. (I'm not kidding: Aunt Jo slept in a recliner in my parent's den, which had become Mom's sickroom with a hospital bed and commode. She was there pretty much 24/7. She was with me when Mom died, and guided me through it very much like a midwife at a birth.)

    So I'm reading your words for Pete with similar gratitude for another good soul who will soon follow him over the mountain. Thank God for well-lived lives.

  2. I've read may tributes to Pete Seeger. None better than yours. Well put!