It was a moment I consider one of my few brushes with greatness (finding myself in the liquor store line-up in Toronto immediately behind Northrop Frye; passing the 18-year-old Prince Charles on the street in Cambridge—the look on his face said “I know you know who I am but for the love of God don’t speak to me”).
It was the summer of 1968, and I was a visitor to the assembly of the World Council of Churches, in Uppsala, Sweden. Pete Seeger was to sing a concert and I wanted to hear him; but by the time I got to the hall, it was full. However, he sent out word to the hundreds of us standing outside that if we would wait, he would come out when the concert was finished (I wonder if he cut it short for us; we didn’t seem to wait very long) and sing for us and with us—which he did. I was standing about six feet from him, just air between him and me. I remember the impulse I had to touch him (see on this Matthew 9:20-21 for an earlier instance of the same impulse); but of course I was too Anglo-Saxon to do this. It was a wonderful moment.
Earlier this week I was going through an old file and found, quite out of place, issue 22 (September 1989) of EAR News, the newsletter of End the Arms Race, an anti-nuclear coalition based in Vancouver, of which I was once vice-president; and there he is on the cover, head back, singin’ away. He had performed at a benefit concert for EAR at the Orpheum Theatre on July 13, joined on stage by his grandson, Tao (gotta believe it!). As the newsletter said, he was singing in “true Seeger form: thoughtful lyrics, touching melodies and a powerful political message.” And there on stage with him was Libby Davies, progressive stalwart then as now; then a city councilor, and now the NDP MP for Vancouver East. She gave him a parchment proclaiming July 13, 1989 (I was teaching summer school in Denver, and missed the concert) as Pete Seeger Day in Vancouver.
My friend Angus Stuart, rector of the Anglican Church of St Francis in the Wood in West Vancouver, and someone very knowledgeable about music, especially jazz and folk, has this to say about him.
This week the world lost a true saint, prophet and sage of our times – Pete Seeger died at the age of 94. He was truly a good man through and through, a gentle but powerful force for good. From his work in the civil rights movement in the U.S. through his huge educational work among children and young people to his environmental work in Clearwater cleaning up the Hudson River, he was a true inspiration. And he was not a bad musician either. He had the gift of calling people together – widely ranging in outlooks and backgrounds and even political views – and getting them to sing together, bringing their spirits together into one Spirit. Truly a gift. I share with you this video from his 90th birthday concert in 2010: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gonFPqN8R2w It brought tears to my eyes. Pete Seeger: rest in peace, and rise up singing!
I hope you will check out the link in Angus’s note. I watched it, and, like Angus, found tears in my eyes. I have been making a kind of collection in recent years of what I call beautiful old men: Chadral Rinpoche, Trevor Huddleston, Bill Shannon, Marie-Bernard Nielly, Tilden Edwards, Dan Berrigan, James George and so on—I’m curious about how they became what they became. I hereby invest Pete Seeger into their company, the Order of the Beautiful Old Men. Watching him sing on his 90th-birthday video, again with his head thrown back and the music coming straight from his heart, I thought I could see something in his eyes that was seeing past our temporal human stupidities into eternity. Call me soupy, but watch it yourself and see if you can see what I mean.
Here are two excellent obits that appeared this week, one from the Guardian and one from the New York Times.
Pete Seeger: the man who brought politics to musichttp://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/29/arts/music/pete-seeger-songwriter-and-champion-of-folk-music-dies-at-94.html
Pete Seeger, Songwriter and Champion of Folk Music, Dies at 94
Both of them are worth reading, and I won’t duplicate them here. But I do want to mention a few of the high points of Pete’s (we’re on first-name terms now, him in eternity and me still in historical time) life, because I want to remember them.
*Yes, he was a communist, as were thousands of other Americans in the thirties. He was very apologetic in later years for his naive support of Stalin, but he continued to call himself a communist with a small “c,” and to hold to the communist ideal of social justice and the dignity of the working class.
*In 1955 he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. His response to the committee’s enquiry into his “conspiratorial” activities is classic, and in the circumstances, very brave: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” And then he offered to sing for the committee the songs which marked him as a “conspirator”! [ J ] The committee declined.
*He it was who taught Martin Luther King “We shall overcome.”
*And, in a wonderful counterpoint to his interrogation for Un-American (what a term!) Activities, he sang at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
So long then, Pete: and to quote you to yourself, “it’s been good to know ya.”
Pete Seeger, singer, folk-song collector, songwriter, social activist: born May 3, 1919, died in Beacon, NY, January 27, 2014.