On November 15th, 2001, I was in Washington attending a conference celebrating the life of progressive 1930s folklorist Benjamin Botkin. In addition to the usual panels and talks, the organizers had included in the program a musical session with Pete Seeger, his brother Mike and sister Peggy. Together they performed some of the folk standards in their repertoire. Then each Seeger did one solo number. Mike and Peggy sang more old favorites. Then it was Pete's turn. I wondered which of his iconic songs he would choose. This Land is Your Land? Where Have all the Flowers Gone?
On stage, he fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a creased sheet of paper and unfolded it. I felt a little sorry for him. "He's old," I thought, "it's not surprising that some of his verses have escaped his memory." As he propped the lyric sheet on his banjo case, he apologized to the audience: This song had just been written; he wasn't confident he'd memorized the lyrics yet. Then he sang Tom Paxton's tribute to the firefighters who had died on 9/11. As is his habit, he taught the audience to join in on the chorus: "Now every time I try to sleep I'm haunted by the sound / Of firemen pounding up the stairs / While we were running down."
It's hard to sing when you've given yourself over to weeping, but I tried.
I was reminded of this experience recently when I went to see "The Power of Song," a loving documentary about Seeger's life. He wrote or co-wrote songs that formed the sound track to the social change movements of the last 60 years. From the struggles for unions and civil rights to the protests against the Vietnam War, Seeger's anthems like We Shall Overcome and Waist Deep in the Big Muddy rallied support for the cause. In his late 80s when the film was made, Seeger has become a living monument. Yet there's not a backward looking moment. He's still using his music to tell the story of his times, as he sees it. In reviewing "The Power of Song," the New York Times wrote about Seeger: "He's still busy, still angry, still hopeful, still singing."
For me, the hopeful part is what came through most strongly. Forty years ago Pete Seeger did something so quixotic, so idealistic, so impractical, that its failure was virtually guaranteed. He wanted to help end pollution of New York's Hudson River, which had become a dumping ground for PCBs and other industrial waste. His vision was to build a replica of a 19th century sailing sloop and use it as a floating classroom to educate children and adults about the importance of the river. Since then the Clearwater has been the centerpiece of an environmental education program that has inspired generations of New York residents to advocate for the Hudson. The cleanup is far from complete, but pollution has been steadily declining, the fish have come back, and in some places the river is swimmable again.
Partly because of Pete Seeger's stubborn belief that all is not already lost.