by Rachelle Lamb
February 2, the memorial service for Pete Seeger was held today in Beacon NY where he had lived for 40 years drawing over a thousand people wanting to bid goodbye. I've thought about him every day since he died last week. The moment I clicked the YouTube video and heard his honest and gentle voice accompanied by that sitting around the wood stove on a family farm banjo, the tears flowed. Just mentioning it now makes them well up again .. my chest and throat suddenly feeling like a caravan of sorrows being pulled by those spirit horses of remembering .. and so remember I will:
I'm blessed to have had a wonderful mother, a mother who's message to me and my brothers while growing up was always be true to yourself. She didn't say it benignly, she didn't say it because it was the thing to say .. whether it was her heritage, the incredible difficulties that she and her family had encountered moving from the UK to Canada post war at thirteen years of age, a move which was expected to improve their lives but instead brought great poverty as well as tragedy, whether she intuited at some level that her life would be cut short by cancer or whether it was the indomitable spirit she was born with, her desire for the true and beautiful with no limitations on the bandwidth and no matter the cost, she meant it .. be true to yourself. And by example she led and also introduced us to those who lived in that same courageous way.
I was six years old when I met Pete Seeger. He entered the living room, pulled up a stool, got his banjo out and started singing. I had a vivid imagination back then. I actually thought he was inside the speakers .. I would stare closely at the charcoal fabric hoping I might see him through the tight weave. Ah to see the world like that again! Pete Seeger, right there inside the speaker with a couple of hundred kids and their parents. The album was titled Children's Concert at Town Hall. That particular vinyl was worn and scratched I tell ya, eventually skipping in a few spots and pulling someone up from the old corduroy couch to move the needle. My father still has that precious one in his collection. What a blessing! I have no doubt in my mind that Pete Seeger, with that very album, had a hand in shaping me. He made me wonder about how it all could be. He planted seeds that would eventually sprout. That's the way to do it Pete! Mom preparing macaroni and cheese in the kitchen, Dad about to come home from work .. my younger brothers and I playing indoors in a tiny bungalow looking out over Lake Huron. On those bitterly cold January days we'd sing along .. this land is your land, this land is my land .. and sometimes we'd dance. Pete's song about Abi YoYo, the giant monster who threatens to wipe out a village, and how an ostracized father, also a magician and prankster, and his ukelele playing son finally earn respect by taking care of the problem .. it was a great one to dance to. We kids would dance along with that hairy monster Abi Yoyo as the banjo sped up. A few minutes of that and we'd all be on the floor panting and giggling.
It didn't matter whether he was singing to children, or adults, Pete Seeger sang songs that touched the heart, made you want to believe that yeah, you could turn this world around. He made you believe that it could be a wonderful world .. yes it could! What a song that was to my young ears!! Surely the words to this song have been a driving force in my life, the reason I still get out of bed in the morning .. the reason I keep trying to lend my muscle to the great turning of this enchanting blue green earth marble that spins within the vast sea of stars that blankets us every night.
Some folks might remind me at this point that I keep pointing to all the things that are wrong with this world (guilty as charged), which in our times is considered pessimistic and judgmental, but I never do it without also pointing to the extraordinary beauty that surrounds us and the shimmer of plenitude that is always here, whether it be in the natural world or in the small gestures between people, the small I love yous that happen regularly that often go unnoticed. I feel the need to speak to these very things, from the horrific to the beautiful, because if I don't I'll go back to sleep and miss the whole thing, both the pain and the joy. I'll forget to carry the torch.
And it's people like Pete Seeger who's example I want to follow, people like poet Seamus Heaney whose voice has also traveled to the other shore not so very long ago .. people like Wendell Berry who will turn 80 this year, long may he live, .. those singers and poets who immediately come to mind and who stopped worrying long ago about what other people think of them or what their deep love for the world would cost in terms of heartache because if you love this world deeply, your heart aches and aches and aches. And you must decide if you will withdraw from the race altogether with despair in one pocket and cynicism in the other of if you will rise up and write or sing while praising the beauty and the conundrum at the same time.
Artists of redemption, soldiers of beauty, those who are utterly convinced that it's only right and noble to pursue the highest standard for humanity in the midst of and in spite of great suffering .. they're the ones I look up to. How many people do you know who, when they speak, their words go straight to your heart .. and you can't help but be struck and moved .. because they speak so eloquently on behalf of humanity, to something you know deep down to be true, and you want to jump aboard with them and head to that possible land. As far as I can tell, that's the way to cradle this world.
I want to remember Pete Seeger. I don't want my life to go on as if he hadn't touched me. He had a great influence on me so I remain indebted to him. Pete had mighty big shoes and left behind some magnificent footprints .. we can't fill them but let's at least give it a try. So right you are Pete, it could be a wonderful world. I bow to you good man for your back boned humility and showing us what a citizen of the world looks like .. and making it to 94 as you did .. whoa thank you for that! Thank you for showing us what elder hood can look like. Thank you too for strengthening my position on being anti-anti-aging. You make growing old so damn fine and honourable!
Don't you be lonely Pete as you make your way. I'll be looking for you and the sweet sound of your banjo when my time comes. May the tears of the many who loved you carry you generously to the other shore. I will not forget you. That's a promise xo
Some precious gems ...
"I’ve often thought, standing onstage with 1000 people in front of me, that somebody over on my right had a great-great grandfather who was trying to kill the great-great grandfather of somebody off to my left. And here we are all singing together. And wouldn’t it surprise all those great-grandfathers if they could see their great-grandchildren singing together? They’d probably say, “Why did we fight so hard?” Good question!"
Some lovely highlights from conversations between Bill Moyers and Pete Seeger over the years.