I woke this morning to the news that Pete Seeger had died. I responded physically, feeling queasy and cold, a deep wistfulness washing over me along with the mental echo of Pete’s voice. I remembered my introduction to Pete’s music through a friend who played the banjo. I remembered writing a sermon about him that I believed in so much I would have preached it to an empty room. I remembered singing his children’s songs to my own son, slung on my back as our family hiked on a California sabbatical. “Little bird, little bird, fly through my window,” I sang to my son again this morning, with a bit of a catch in my throat.
There is too much to say about Pete, but what comes to mind is a favorite story from the end of Alec Wilkinson’s wonderful short biography of him. I’ll offer it here and invite your thoughts on songs well sung and a life well lived:
A cameo, finally. Seeger in relief against the background of himself, courtesy of John Cronin, who is also the director of the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries: “About two winters ago, here on Route 9 outside Beacon, one winter day it was freezing–rainy and slushy, a miserable winter day–the war in Iraq is heating up, and the country’s in a poor mood. I’m driving south, and on the other side of the road I see from the back a tall, slim figure in a hood and coat. I can tell it’s Pete. He’s standing there all by himself, and he’s holding up a big piece of cardboard that clearly has something written on it. Cars and trucks are going by him. He’s getting wet. He’s holding the homemade sign above his head–he’s very tall, and his chin is raised the way he does when he sings–and he’s turning the sign in a semicircle, so that the drivers can see it as they pass, and some people are honking and waving at him, and some people are giving him the finger. He’s eighty-four years old.
“I know he’s got some purpose, of course, but I don’t know what it is. What struck me is that, whatever his intentions are, and obviously he wants people to notice what he’s doing, he wants to make an impression, anyway, whatever they are, he doesn’t call the newspapers and say, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do, I’m Pete Seeger.’ He doesn’t cultivate publicity. That isn’t what he does. He’s far more modest than that. He would never make a fuss. He’s just standing out there in the cold and the sleet like a scarecrow getting drenched. I go a little bit down the road, so that I can turn around and come back, and when I get him in view again, this solitary and elderly figure, I see that what he’s written on the sign is, ‘Peace.'”*
Friends, I lay my banjo in the dirt. For Pete Seeger. And I invite your memories and reflections.
*Alec Wilkinson, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portait of Pete Seeger (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), 119-120.