It couldn’t have been a better day. The sun was shining and the temperature was just perfect as we walked into this old beat-up theatre called the “Beacon”. It’s a theatre that’s seen a lot of shows and looks it. It’s been closed for a long time, but there was a show taking place outside that would benefit the renovation of the inside. We were going for one reason, to see Pete Seeger. Yes, he’s still alive. I thought he was 90 but actually he’s 92. As I walked through this caverness theatre with the walls peeling and the ceiling coming down, my eyes spotted this thin man. He was talking to a few people and yes he was the man. The man who sang with the Weaver’s, the man who talks about Woody Guthrie like a brother, the man who has saved the Hudson River and built the Clearwater Sloop and has travelled the world. He’s not only a piece of Americana, but a piece of my life growing up. There he was with his banjo case in hand. We strolled through the doorway and I was within a few feet of him. I was acting like a little kid.
He was old now with his best years behind him and his voice rough like sandpaper. On another level, you wouldn’t know it. He was like a kid, interested in everything going on, listening intensely to the other acts that were singing and being interrupted by other people wanting to say hello. He was smiling all the time. Life was still sweet and young and good to this old geezer. I watched him intently the whole afternoon looking for clues on how I could be so engaging when I’m 92, if I make it through tomorrow.
We listened to another great folk singer who was really the star of the show, Tom Chapin. He was on top of his game as he sang his own self-composed folk songs that brought a smile to your face. Seeger had not lost his politics. You could tell that he was passionate about the environment and was interested in making the Hudson River Valley a show place for the world. Now he sings in schools with children and shows up here and there for benefits but he really can’t sing anymore, at least not like he used to. I bought a CD of his called Pete Seeger 1965. His voice was different 45 years ago, as I listened to the CD. He gave wonderful background information to each song, many of which I hadn’t heard before. He was actually saving songs that were about to die or go extinct.
Finally, it came his time to get on the stage and he got up there filled with lots of energy and asked us to sing along. It’s always been his style to have the audience join in as he fed us the words. The first song he wanted us to sing along with was If I had a Hammer. We all started to sing with gusto and a few tears rolled out of my eyes as the song brings up memories of my days in Oakland, CA. The audience filled with people my age watching their hair go grayer or losing it all together, were visibly moved. I could tell from the row of teenagers behind Seeger on the stage that they didn’t know the song. How could you grow up in America and not know the words to If I had a Hammer? Wow, it took me back a bit, but then again my generation was not always good at passing things down. I’ve seen it with the way we have raised our kids and even taught them the faith. Our parents seemed to have done a better job than the baby boomers that followed.
I noticed that Pete wants us to sing along and somehow that raises his voice and makes him sound better. There is something about him leading and teaching others with a song. There is a “we-ness” about the way he operates. This came out when he led us in the song, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Towards the end of the song, he stops and looks up to heaven to apologize to it’s authors, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg and says “please forgive me, but I have to change the words.”
Somewhere over the rainbow Bluebirds fly.
Birds fly over the rainbow.
Why then, oh why can’t I?
If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can’t I?
He says we have to change, “I” to “ We”. This song is really not about Dorothy, but it’s about us. He says again, it’s not me that goes over the rainbow, it’s all of us, or none of us. That’s sort of the way that Seeger thinks. He lives locally, he works for politics locally, but his humanity is universal and so is his theology.
Finally, I was struck by a new song that he had helped a fellow friend and songwriter who had recently had a stroke to find the words to finish the song. Interesting enough, he sang the song called “God’s Counting on Me.”
I began to smile as I sang along – Pete Seeger the old coot, there’s a preacher inside of you and a message you have to share. God’s been counting on you for 92 years and you made a difference.
We all have that chance.