Saturday, May 22, 2010

Pete Seeger and Friends

A few weeks ago, a customer and I were gabbing about my days working at The Golden Ring Folklore Center. Boy, was I surprised when, days later he dropped by with a gift of ten Pete Seeger CD's. Ten! Later that week, I attended a presentation by Stuart Stotts, whose recently released book, We Shall Overcome, includes a forward written by Pete Seeger. Not long after that another customer shared a Pete story with me when she spotted a new children's book called Mama Miti.

Here's the story. Wangari (Mana Miti) grew up in the shadow of Mount Kenya listening to tales about the land and the people around her. She loved the towering trees, but she feared for the natural future of Kenya. Wangari planted trees one by one to refresh the land and her spirit. When women came to her for help with their families, she told them to do the same. Soon the countryside was filled with trees, Kenya was strong again, changed tree by tree. The story seems simple, but her political and environmental activism brought worldwide attention to the issues facing women, the environment, and the importance of sustainability. Mama Miti is the story of 2004 Nobel Prize recipient, Wangari Maathai.

Have I wandered again? Not really. You see, my customer,Jody, told me that Pete Seeger auctioned off his famous banjo, the one with the words "The machine kills" lettered around the drum, (I never understood that) and gave the money to Maathai. Jody also told me there is movement to nominate Seeger for the Nobel Prize. You can add your name to the petition at

All this Pete info seemed more than coincidental; I'm sure it was part of some cosmic plan to get me into the library, searching for a book about this guy whose music I love. Since I knew very little about Seeger, I grabbed the thickest, and most official looking book on him that I could find. Turns out that How Can I Keep From Singing: Pete Seeger by David Dunaway is considered the epitome of bios on the musician.

Pete Seeger did not spend his days riding the rails, sharing stories and songs around hobo campfires as I envisioned. He was anything but a free spirit, and it was his activism that landed him in the midst of political controversy. Seeger was investigated for sedition, blacklisted, picketed, and interviewed by the House Un-American Activites Committee during the height of the McCarthy era. I suppose that joining the Young communist League got him noticed quickly, but he drifted away from the party in the 50's.

He attended Harvard on a partial scholarship, and while there, he joined - of all things - a puppet theatre. While on a six week tour with the company, Seeger witnessed the plight of the American farmer, and a plethora of societal injustices including anti-Semitism and racial inequalities. His crusade to battle hatred, bigotry and violence began.

Seeger was surrounded by music his entire life, and it was natural that he use music to speak for him. We all know "If I had a Hammer," and "Where Have all the Flowers Gone." I have a vague recollection of him singing "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" on the Smothers Brothers summer show...and then the show went POOF! Reading this book explained why. The song was written about a WWII platoon captain who made some questionable calls, but the American public saw the lyric "We're waist deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool says to 'push on'" as an allegory about Lyndon Johnson's refusal to pull troops out of Vietnam.

Even though he was questioned at every turn, Pete Seeger never turned down an opportunity to sing out for laborers, or to get down and dirty doing grunt to clean pollution in and around his beloved Hudson River. Whether a concerted effort or not, in 1982 Seeger made what was his first public declaration of his growing personal distaste for communism in its soviet form when he performed a benefit concert for Poland's solidarity movement. He also publicly apologized for his association with the party in his 1993 autobiography Where Have All the Flowers Gone.

So, that's what I learned about 90 year old Pete Seeger.

On Sunday, I attended the Heart-A-Rama Women's Only (in theory; random in practice) Association's inaugural Wild Rumpus. I'm glad we took the time to talk and laugh together when everyone was dressed in normal clothes! That's us...looking a bit like an Up with People album cover shoot!

What am I reading? The School of Essential Ingredients.

These are some of the amazing tuplips at the West garden...and they smell unbelievable!