Yesterday morning, I wasn’t prepared for the tears that would come when I read that Pete Seeger passed away. I’m sure some of it has to do with the residual feelings I’m still having about losing Jean Anyon this past September, but it also has to do with the emotional work of doing what’s right, fighting for what you believe in, and striving for a place where kindness, peace, and love are the norm. As a friend said on the phone the other day, “we live in tough times.”
So many things have coalesced in the last six months in my personal life, and my world has shifted back to the Hudson Valley, not far from Beacon, NY, the town that Pete Seeger called home. I now live 40 miles from where I was born, 30 miles from where I lived until I was five, a few hours’ drive from my grandmother’s old house on Brooker Hollow Road, and just over the ridge from where I learned my first song on guitar when I was fourteen. A friend of my mom’s who lived near Woodstock gave me his beautiful f-hole guitar and an old binder of songs he compiled during his days of organizing in the 60s. I can still smell the old tattered pages and plastic sleeves that held it all together. I’ll never forget sitting down to teach myself how the instrument worked, and spending hours trying to get my fingers to cooperate. One of the songs had been played so many times that the holes punched in it no longer held it in the binder, and it was the first one that I tackled. It was “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” by Pete Seeger.
I had heard of Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie, and scores of other artists making folk music. At the time, I associated them with social movements and hippies of my mom’s generation — people I didn’t know or understand all that well from my view as a teenager on Long Island in the mid-90s. I was more interested in listening to Talking Heads, Fleetwood Mac, Prince, George Michael, etc., and spent most of my free time with my nose buried in a book or making friendship bracelets. It would be years later, at anti-war protests in New York City in the early 2000s, that I’d reconnect with the protest songs that launched my longstanding relationships with the guitar and activism.
It was Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in 2007, and an anti-Iraq War protest had been called at the military recruiting station in Times Square. I made my sign, and got on the subway to join others around the city taking a stand against a war that, in my opinion, never made sense (I should caveat that I’m not sure war ever makes sense). I arrived at the protest to people (mostly) silently milling around — no sound permit had been gotten, and there were no bull horns.
So I started chanting, and we got the demo going. I wouldn’t know till the next day that my voice would land me on the cover of AM New York. It was one of those very New York City moments that can’t ever be predicted: we chanted and sang for hours in the cold that evening, and throngs of people joined us from off the street, until that tiny triangular space of concrete in Times Square was bursting with people joined together in protest. I’m not sure if we sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” that night, but it’s a song that will always stick out as a beacon of anti-war, anti-racism, and anti-anything-that-isn’t-in-the-interest-of-ordinary people.
RIP, Pete Seeger. You fought against what was wrong — not always an easy decision — and I thank you for the example you set and the songs you left behind.