Reflections on Pete Seeger’s life well sung

Pete Seeger performing in 1986. (Wikipedia / Josef Schwartz)

Pete Seeger performing in 1986. (Wikipedia / Josef Schwartz)

Just when I thought
All was lost, you changed my mind.
You gave me hope, (not just the old soft soap)
You showed that we could learn to share in time.
(You and me and Rockefeller)
I’ll keep pluggin’ on,
Your face will shine through all our tears.
And when we sing another little victory song,
Precious friend, you will be there,
Singing in harmony,
Precious friend, you will be there.

Pete’s passing was not a surprise, and yet to have someone gone after being around for almost 100 years is still unbelievable. Yes, he lives on in his songs and in the lives of the millions of people he has encouraged, prodded and cajoled into singing (loudly) and working by example (hard, every day — he was chopping wood just 10 days ago!) for a more equitable, peaceful and sustainable future.

It was somewhat amazing how chipper Pete seemed to be after his partner Toshi left us this summer. Now it feels somehow comforting that he follows her so closely. They say that after so many years entwined it is impossible for some of us to continue alone. Now it’s up to us, Pete’s “children,” to keep on keepin’ on.

It is intimidating to write among the sea of millions who claim Pete’s memory and who are more eloquent than I am. But I am reminded of when I crewed on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, and I was compelled (encouraged? lovingly directed?) to stop grumbling about all the men up on stage and pick up a guitar myself. Cardinal life rule  number one: Ya gotta own it.

By the time Pete was my age, he had accomplished more than many of us can even dream of completing. These accomplishments were in no small way due to his gifts of song, compassion, courage, discernment, storytelling, perseverance, truth seeking (and finding), not to mention good timing, serendipity, privilege and Toshi, his phenomenal partner. Those are traits and gifts that everyone will write about.

But it was another contribution of Pete’s that I thought of this morning as I spoke with a young woman of color about the challenge of infusing a collective liberation framework into a longstanding white organization. We spoke about how a truly revolutionary approach comes from what we now call intersectionality — the practice of understanding the interwoven threads that connect our lives, our economies and each other. And this is perhaps where Pete and his life’s work were most inspired and inspiring.

His pragmatic yet transformational leadership example helped build community across divides both great and small. As friend and activist singer-songwriter Reggie Harris writes, “He helped us to realize that it’s not about us and how pretty we can sing. It’s about how much more beautiful the world is when we all sing together.”

Of course, talk doesn’t cook rice and song doesn’t raise the sails. But these words sure can help — and become the thread that encourages us to participate and weave a beautiful fabric together.

Today, I am struck by the number of stories about Pete piling up on the Facebook pages of the many of us who were somehow in his orbit: Those whose childhoods were full of his songs, those who worked on the Clearwater, those who marched in the Civil Rights and Vietnam marches and even those who bought the Weaver’s first hit record. All these stories are so heartfelt and personal that I was inspired to add my own memory.

As crew on the Clearwater in the 1980s, I was fortunate to be able to spend some of my free days in Beacon, New York, where Pete and Toshi lived. These weren’t your average days off; Pete was up early chopping wood and Toshi was bustling around completing another house chore or organizing the next sloop club festival. So much for sleeping in!

Pete didn’t stop at chopping wood either. He was the quintessential Energizer Bunny, with multiple ideas constantly popping out of his mouth that he would always write on scraps of paper and give to people. Somewhere I have one that he sent to me with the words and notes for a song he thought would be useful as we organized against the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle in 1999, along with the suggestion that we set up multiple soap box locations for the public to use on street corners. He also pointed out that we should do some advance work in order to have access to electric outlets and cautioned me about the “black shirts.” Finally, on another scrap I just found, he wrote: “To people who say that the ruling class will never give in without a fight, I point that there were 300 slave revolts that failed. Even the Civil War did not get rid of Jim Crow. M.L.K. succeeded.”

Thank you Pete, Toshi and the surrounding community for standing for a vision of an equitable, humane and healthy world even when the rocks were being thrown straight at you. And may your passion for peace and justice be sung loud enough to sustain and empower those who follow in your footsteps.

Old devil pain, you often pinned me down,
You thought I’d cry, and beg you for the end
But at that very time, my lovers gather ’round
And help me rise to fight you one more time!

Old devil hate, I knew you long ago,
Then I found out the poison in your breath.
Now when we hear your lies, my lovers gather ’round
And help me rise to fight you one more time!

No storm nor fire can ever beat us down,
No wind that blows but carries us further on.
And you who fear, oh lovers, gather ’round
And we can rise and sing it one more time!

Words and Music by Pete Seeger (1969)

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