The Daily Green
5.5.2009 12:09 AM
The Voice on the Hudson
by Dan Shapley, Editor of the Daily Green
Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday party and my Kumbaya moment.
One windy Sunday several years ago in Beacon, on the east shore of the Hudson River, I left friends momentarily to chase a paper napkin that had fluttered off the picnic table where we’d spread out lunch. There, just behind a squat building with a full strong tree growing out of the interior and straight through the roof, was Pete Seeger, the legendary folk singer and activist, pulling away driftwood left to block a dock by the receding tide.
The building was the Beacon Sloop Club, the home of the folks who maintain the Woody Guthrie, the red-sailed cousin of Seeger’s other replica, the Sloop Clearwater. I was a reporter at the time, covering the Hudson Valley environment for the Poughkeepsie Journal. It wasn’t anything noteworthy to run into Pete Seeger on my beat — anywhere there was a cause or a group of children, odds are there would be Pete Seeger and his banjo, trying to get a crowd to sing along with him. But this was a rare intimate moment, and I took the chance the wind had offered to help a legend with some simple labor and to ask him some questions, about the state of the Hudson River and about his plans to build a floating pool in the river so kids could develop a first-hand love for the Hudson, but mostly about newspapering (his first goal was to be a journalist, after all, and there’s a reportorial style to his songwriting that acts as a ballast to the poetry and the activism).
It’s a wonder of small town living, maybe, or of Pete Seeger (or both) that I had the chance to casually chat with a legend — a man who fomented with Woody Guthrie and sang with Leadbelly, who fought alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King for civil rights, who was indicted during the McCarthy era (and who is still reviled for his communist sympathies — just wait for the comments below), who had the crazy idea that building a beautiful boat would turn back the tide of pollution on one of the nation’s most notoriously fouled rivers, who won’t sing “This Land Is Your Land” without the “subversive verses” about trespassing and hungry out-of-work laborers, who was an outspoken peace activist, whether the war was in Vietnam or — at that moment when I met him in Beacon — imminently coming to Iraq. There aren’t many inductees in the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame who would list that particular accolade as a footnote.
Here I was, having just visited the Dia:Beacon, a contemporary sculpture museum filling a defunct Nabisco box factory, at a riverfront park built on a reclaimed landfill, where crowds lazed through a farmers market and some threw fishing lines out into the glittering water. None of these things was thinkable 40 years ago when Pete Seeger launched the Clearwater in the sewage-clogged river. And yet, Seeger had not only lived to see his dream of an improbable river recovery– mostly — realized, but even to regret some of what that success had wrought: Little boxes on every hillside.
As we spoke, he had a real and present grace, and a faraway sense of the weight that some stranger would attribute to his words. “He’s going to look an awful lot like your granddad,” Bruce Springsteen warned a packed Madison Square Garden at Seeger’s 90th birthday party Sunday, “if your granddad could kick your ass.” Springsteen, the penultimate act before the ensemble choruses and encores of the evening, talked about the influence that Seeger’s “stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism” had had on him, and his own songwriting. Springsteen, standing beneath an elegant string of lights in the shape of the Clearwater’s sails, called Seeger the “stealth dagger in the heart of this country’s illusions about ourselves,” to raucous applause. Then he and Tom Morello launched into an impassioned performance of Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” the last lines of which, lifted from The Grapes of Wrath, seem to describe Seeger’s purpose:
“Now Tom said ‘Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy,
“Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries,
“Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air,
“Look for me Mom, I’ll be there.
“Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand,
“Or decent job or a helpin’ hand,
“Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free,
“Look in their eyes Mom, you’ll see me.”
It was Tommy Sands, the Irish folk singer who earlier in the night applied the phrase I associate with journalism to folk singing: “Long live Pete Seeger,” he said, “and long live the songs that comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” For myself, I’ve been a reporter and editor long enough that observation and questioning comes naturally. I’ve felt proud about the impact some of the stories I’ve written have had, and felt satisfied that I had meaningful work and a meaningful place in a community. But though you could fit almost three of my lives in the space of Pete Seeger’s years, I know the meaning of my life couldn’t fill this man’s pinkie toe.
The Daily Green was conceived, in part, to help people live the type of environmentally conscious lifestyle inspired by Pete Seeger without having to engage with the likes of Pete Seeger. It’s a place for those of us who feel uncomfortable singing folk songs in crowds, and that’s in large part why it’s valuable. Not everyone would scream out “Arlo!” or “Joanie!” gleefully, as if to old friends, as the younger Guthrie or Joan Baez took to the stage. Not everyone would attend that show. And yet, we all have to embrace the values of environmental stewardship if we’re going to maintain life as we know it on Earth in the face of global warming, the onslaught of toxic chemicals and engineered foods and other threats. There will always be people, too, like the girl in front of me Sunday, who checked her cell phone before swaying dutifully to the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” and people like the guy a few seats over in the Pearl Jam sweatshirt who looked heartbroken that Eddie Vedder was a no-show but — who knows? — maybe took something unexpected away from the night’s performances. Nothing wrong with any of that. I’ve spent my life sitting on my hands sweating out the singalongs as a Hudson Valley boy who can’t help but end up at these kinds of concerts. (Truth is, I was blown away by Sunday’s concert first because of the music: it was unexpectedly awesome, beyond my expectations by far.)
Even if the idea of singing “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,” makes us cringe, we can each still do our part. I’ve always done my part, I felt, sitting on the outside of Pete Seeger’s movement looking in, translating it — if you will — for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t attend the rally. I’ve stood by while Pete Seeger tried to inspire crowds to sing. I’ve felt at times moved, and I’ve felt at times saddened: It’s been decades, I’ve thought, since crowds were really inspired to sing folk songs in groups, decades since that singing would have meant something. The denizens of the digital age don’t sing Kumbaya. For the record, neither did anyone on Sunday — but the movement was there: Aging hippies, yes, but others too, and all ages. Pete Seeger’s been trying in every way he can think of — and certainly in ways that no one has ever thought before him — to inspire more people to be a part of his movement. Whatever it takes, and whatever might just work: Songs, sloops, river pools, or standing alone holding a “Peace” sign at an intersection outside a mall in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “Pete has been standing at that intersection all his life,” the actor and activist Tim Robbins said, “teaching us that change doesn’t happen with a movement, but with a person.”
Pete Seeger can hardly sing these days. When he talks, his voice is strong; when he walks, he carries his tall frame lightly; and when he plucks his banjo, the tunes are crafty and artful. His grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, gave him a playful shove at one point Sunday night, and Pete Seeger just danced away. But his singing voice is a shadow of that clear bell it was even a few years ago; its the one part of him that seems 90 years old, that seems like its been weathered by its history singing through the Dust Bowl and the March on Washington. Just listen, though, as he mouths the words to “Amazing Grace” — that song of redemption penned by a repentant slave ship captain, when he was, like me, in his early 30s. Listen as a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden fills in the verses and the chorus, “slower than you’ve ever heard it sung before,” as Seeger asked for it — “How… sweet…. the sound… That…. saved… a wretch… like me…” That chorus of thousands is Pete Seeger’s voice. You can’t not be inspired. You can’t not sing. You can’t help leaving the performance feeling that you are a part of something — and that you have a responsibility to live more thoughtfully, more compassionately, more honestly, more humanely, more courageously. I did. And I know every time a silent breeze kicks up off the Hudson, whether Pete is in Beacon or not, I’ll hear his big voice on it.
You can hear Pete Seeger and many of the performers from Sunday night, and help the Sloop Clearwater, its educational programs and its Legacy Project to inspire the next generation of environmental leaders, in June at the annual Great Hudson River Revival, a two-day music festival on the Hudson River in Croton.