(From The New York Times, January 28, 2014: “Pete Seeger, the singer, folk-song collector and songwriter who spearheaded an American folk revival and spent a long career championing folk music as both a vital heritage and a catalyst for social change, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 94.”
I met Pete Seeger during the summer of 1972, when I was a 16-year-old volunteer on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. I don’t think I knew anything about him or even who he was before I sat in front of him as we rowed a small boat to the anchored Clearwater, but the strength of his spirit and the warmth of his personality immediately captured my heart. We sang as we rowed, letting the music keep our oar strokes in synchrony. That was my first lesson from Pete, although I wasn’t aware then that I was being given a priceless education.
My second lesson came shortly thereafter when I sat next to Pete while all of us on board the Clearwater joined him in singing one classic folk song after another. I didn’t know how to sing a single note then, but I didn’t hesitate to raise my voice. I remember singing “If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome,” This Land is Your Land,” “Guantanamera,” “Garbage” (a particularly dear song for us on the Clearwater), and my favorite, a children’s song called “Abiyoyo.” There was no end to the singing and our joy grew with each verse. Though I would not realize it for decades to come, that day Pete taught me the power of song and the importance of community. We were all united in spirit and in purpose simply because Pete united us in song.
We were all so very young and determined to change the world. With Pete, we learned that the task need not be a struggle marked by conflict. Rather, it can and should be an act of joy and it is probably best accomplished when accompanied by folk songs and banjo music.
Thanks to Pete, I now joyfully raise my voice in song in support of great causes whenever I can. And I don’t particularly care that I’m still tone-deaf (My voice may be a “barbaric yawp,” but it is mine.).
Farewell, Pete. I love you, I will always miss you and I will never stop singing.