Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Where have all the flowers gone?

“Long time passing…”

I think it’s been at least 30 years since I’ve heard Pete Seeger live in concert. My memory of individual concerts has faded, but his voice never will. His spirit moves me to this day. It is a sad day, for I mourn his passing. And yet it is a hopeful day, for if there is one message that sings out louder than any of his many themes it is hope.

I will not attempt a eulogy. That, appropriately, is already being done better and more thoroughly than I can manage. What I do have to offer is a simple, brief personal reflection. For although we were never intimates, his life and his life’s work have had a personal influence on me.

Do young people talk of heroes today? I may be wrong (I guess I hope I am) but it seems far less common to speak of heroes now than it was when I was young. Seeger became my hero at an impressionable age and his example has never diminished. This despite the fact that hero worship comes hard to me. A conflicted relationship with my publicly charismatic but emotionally distant father left me suspicious of authority figures. Pete Seeger’s remarkable voice, along with his commitment to peace, justice and humanity, broke through that resistance. “Keep your eyes on the prize…hold on.” I can’t think of a more important role model.

I grew up near where Seeger lived along the Hudson River Valley. It was the tumultuous Sixties. Seeger was still blacklisted for his controversial political views and I suppose I was the beneficiary of his hardship for he gave concerts to small local audiences. Although I never had the chance to board it, I was on two or three occasions thrilled to spy his sloop, the Clearwater, plying the Hudson River. (Seeger founded an environmental advocacy organization dedicated to cleaning the Hudson and his sloop was both its symbol and a floating music festival.)

My favorite Pete Seeger story started with another singer entirely. Don McLean, who also grew up in the same neighborhood, was another favorite performer back then, well before he became an overnight sensation with “The Day the Music Died.” I was a student at the State University of NY at Albany in, I think it was 1972, when I got tickets to hear McLean sing at a county fair in Rhinebeck, NY. McLean came on stage and announced in an obviously strained and hoarse voice that he was too sick to sing. But he didn’t think we’d be disappointed, he croaked, because he had asked his friend Pete Seeger to stand in for him. No one was disappointed. That one was a memorable concert.

One of the most distinctive features of any of Seeger’s concerts was his penchant for encouraging the audience to sing along. He never sang to the audience, always with us. This seems also to have gone out of fashion.

One of my all time favorite albums is Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome: Live at Carnegie Hall.” In all the years of listening to it never once has it failed to bring a tear of exhilaration when his voice rises in jubilation on the civil rights anthems and another tear of compassion when his voice softly whispers, in Guantanamera,

“Yo soy un hombre sincero
De donde crecen las palmas
Y antes de morirme quiero
Echar mis versos del alma

I am a truthful man,
From the land of the palm trees.
Before dying, I want to
Share these poems of my soul.”

Today, as I type these words and hear his voice singing them in my mind, the tears flow freely. Fare thee well, Pete Seeger. “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer out love…all over this world.”


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  2. I'm just surprised to see Jose Marti's verses translated to the English... it makes me proud of my country and see how far they got :-)

  3. Pete Seeger sang the verses in Spanish and spoke them in English during the Carnegie Hall concert.