At a Roadside Vigil, an Iconic Voice of Protest

At a Roadside Vigil, an Iconic Voice of Protest

By DENNIS GAFFNEY

 

Published: June 22, 2008
WAPPINGERS FALLS, N.Y. — Pete Seeger pulled his black Toyota Highlander into the Staples parking lot here and plucked some signs from the back seat, including one with “Peace” spray-painted in large orange letters. With that, he slung his banjo over his shoulder like an old musket and marched toward the intersection of Route 9, a bustling six-lane thoroughfare, and 9D, the “Hudson Valley P.O.W.-M.I.A. Memorial Highway.”

 

Dennis Gaffney for The New York Times

Pete Seeger at his post at Routes 9 and 9D on June 7 in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., the site of weekly vigils against the war.

But before the 89-year-old folk singer flashed his antiwar signs to passing drivers from this no-man’s land — a patch of green about an hour north of New York City on the Hudson River — he bent over again and again, picking up litter.

“This is my religion now,” said Mr. Seeger. “Picking up trash. You do a little bit wherever you are.”

Mr. Seeger, the man behind the founding of the Clearwater Festival, being held this weekend at Croton Point Park, is scheduled to appear there on Sunday.

But for the last four years, most Saturdays he has been keeping his vigil in Wappingers Falls, usually not recognized by the hundreds of drivers who whiz by. It is a long road from 1969, when to protest the Vietnam War he sang John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” at the foot of the Washington Monument.

“After two minutes, thousands were singing,” he recalled. “After three minutes, four minutes, a hundred thousand were singing. At the end of eight minutes, all five hundred thousand were singing.”

These days, fewer than a dozen protesters usually participate, while nearly as many who support the war in Iraq hold a counterdemonstration across Route 9. Mr. Seeger, a political activist who has traveled the world, rarely ventures farther than the few miles from here to his home in Beacon, N.Y.

On this particular Saturday, Mr. Seeger chatted easily with Chris Miller of Poughkeepsie. “He’s an ex-Army member,” Mr. Seeger said, “and they’re trying to send him over again.”

Mr. Miller, 38, served as a therapist for four years before receiving an honorable discharge in January 2006. But on Dec. 22, 2007, he said, he received orders to return to Iraq, although he is appealing that decision.

Mr. Miller said he had spent countless hours listening to Mr. Seeger’s stories, like the one about how his car windows were shattered in Peekskill in 1949 as he and his family left a performance he had given with the singer Paul Robeson, who was thought to have Communist sympathies, as was Mr. Seeger. Or the one about the Vietnam veteran who said he had come to a concert in the Catskills to kill Mr. Seeger because of his antiwar stance, but was turned around by the performance and made his way backstage to tell of his transformation.

“I smiled and shook his hand,” Mr. Seeger said. “I had my banjo. We sat down and sang, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ ” Afterward, Mr. Seeger said, the man told him, “I feel clean now.”

Mr. Seeger said he wrote that song in the mid-1950s accompanied by the same banjo he totes around today.

As for Mr. Miller: “Seeing what Pete has gone through and always standing up for what he believed in, despite the consequences, made my decision easier to resist the war. It made me comfortable that in the long run I’ll be all right.”

At one point, Mr. Seeger looked across the highway to the knot of counterdemonstrators. “They always have more flags,” Mr. Seeger said. “But our signs are more fun.” He said he crossed the street once about a year ago and talked to a veteran.

“I shook his hand and said, ‘I’m glad we live in a country where we can disagree with each other without shooting at each other.’ He had to shake my hand. He didn’t know what to say. I even picked up a little litter over there.”

As he chatted, Mr. Seeger broke into “Take It From Dr. King,” which he wrote after the Sept. 11 attacks, in a voice as worn as an old phonograph record.

“Don’t say it can’t be done,” he sang, tapping out the rhythm on his thighs as his Adam’s apple bobbed to the music. “The battle’s just begun/Take it from Dr. King/You too can learn to sing/So drop the gun.”

With songs like that one and “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” an anti-Vietnam War anthem, it is easy to assume he is a pacifist. But that assumption would be wrong. His family tree is adorned with both Quakers and a Revolutionary War veteran.

“Hitler had to be done away with,” said Mr. Seeger, who served in World War II.

His 1966 antiwar anthem, “Bring ’Em Home,” resurrected by Bruce Springsteen in recent years, includes the words: “There’s one thing I must confess/I’m not really a pacifist/If an army invaded this land of mine/You’d find me out on the firing line.”

Asked whether he thought that protesting by the side of the road would help end the war, he said: “I don’t think that big things are as effective as people think they are. The last time there was an antiwar demonstration in New York City I said, ‘Why not have a hundred little ones?’ ”

He said that working for peace was like adding sand to a basket on one side of a large scale, trying to tip it one way despite enormous weight on the opposite side.

“Some of us try to add more sand by teaspoons,” he explained. “It’s leaking out as fast as it goes in and they’re all laughing at us. But we’re still getting people with teaspoons. I get letters from people saying, ‘I’m still on the teaspoon brigade.’ ”

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