So in 2010, Jock was more than a little shocked to hear me announce: “I have made a decision.” For any 64-year-old man with a lifetime of experience with women, this as an opening sentence would cause concern. “There are very few things that if I don’t do them before I die, I will regret. Not seeing Pete Seeger live is one of them.”
I took a deep breath and pressed on, telling Jock I had already bought tickets and reserved accommodations to see Pete in concert. At 92, Pete Seeger’s clock was ticking faster than my 29-year-old one was. It would be something of regret if we didn’t make the pilgrimage.
Regular readers of the Live Local column will remember we took the show on the road, so to speak. We carried our Live Local movement with us and stayed in B&Bs, searched for local food, while reporting on the most successful local currency in America: The BerkShare.
Pilgrimage is not a word arbitrarily chosen or misused for hyperbolic effect. In our household, when faced with the big moral questions, the tough decisions about how to approach a problem do not equate WWJD? It is: “What Would Pete Seeger Do?” The answer to that question is usually not the easy path, not the simple path. Invariably, it is an answer that, when acted upon, will let one’s conscience settle easier at night, even if the social response is far from pleasant.
I do not overstate the point that, for us, two of the true living saints that the world knew died this year: Nelson Mandela and Pete Seeger. To have lost these two voices so close together—it feels like a silence awashes the world now. But that silence is not an absence of thought and action; rather a space for us, as people, to come forward and make the messages of these two lives continue to carry. Because of it, may we all be able to look back toward the ends of our own lives and say, “I feel that my whole life is a contribution.”
Pete has been quoted as saying, “I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” In essence, that is what Live Local is about: us being the millions of little things that together can add up to change. Investing in ourselves, each other and our community, is one small daily act we can strive for together to make a positive impact.
I have quoted Pete many times in this column; I have said he was more conservative than Goldwater, who wanted to take things back to before income tax. Pete wanted “to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.” That sounds so innocuous and simple, maybe completely unrealistic to some, but really at its core, that is a truly revolutionary idea.
Among his many accomplishments in life, his close association with the Hudson Sloop Clearwater project helped provide an environmental education and clean-up program (similar to Wilmington’s own Cape Fear Riverwatch). Both organizations have succeeded because of the efforts and sacrifices of many pieces coming together. One person couldn’t change the fate of the Hudson River, but lots of people together could. After being blacklisted during McCarthyism, not only did Pete not lose his voice for fear of reprisal, he didn’t lose his belief in human goodness. If anything, he believed more than ever we could make the world a better place. Because he believed we were capable, we believed it, too.
As a singer and musician, Pete was a surprising choice for a star. Though his voice was memorable and recognizable—once heard, it would be easy to identify—it was far from the sort of soaring vocalizations sought out by shows like “The Voice” or “American Idol.” His concerts didn’t involve pyrotechnics, amazing stunts, big costumes or phenomenal choreography. But every concert, whether at Carnegie Hall, a summer camp with 8-year-olds, The School of the Americas’ protest, a high-school auditorium, a flat-bed truck for a union picket line or the Lincoln Memorial for President Obama’s inauguration, they all featured the same performer: the audience. Because by sharing music and featuring the collective good of other people—rather than seeking the spotlight for himself—Pete Seeger lived a message of seeing the good in others as the agent for change in the world.
When we went on our pilgrimage to the Clearwater Festival, Pete Seeger came onstage to open the event. We were sitting on the grass not five feet from him. After welcoming everyone, he informed the audience that the organizers of the festival had misled us. They had billed him as a performer, but at 92, he lost his voice and really couldn’t sing anymore. A stunned silence swept over the audience, as he went on: “I have some people I want you to meet.” He called out a group of about 11 young men and women who looked like they might be in late high school to early college. Pete introduced them as musicians he had been working with—he assured were very talented. “I am the past; they are the future,” he added.
With that, he retired stage left behind the kids and played banjo accompaniment, while they performed a mix of folk standards and their own original compositions. When they finished—to a roaring ovation, nonetheless—Pete came back and thanked the audience for their warm welcome. He apologized again for having lost his voice, but asked if we could try just one song. As always, he needed audience participation. With that , he broke into “Sailing Up, Sailing Down,” directing and waiving his banjo like a 20-year-old. Next to me Jock belted out the song with a grin on his face and tears sneaking out of his eyes. He wiped them away and kept on singing. Onstage, the kids all picked up the tune on their guitars.
Gwenyfar Rohler is the author of ‘Promise of Peanuts,’ which can be bought at Old Books on Front Street, with all monies donated to local nonprofit Full Belly Project.