I didn’t know Pete Seeger personally although he knew so many people that I’m one-degree separated via about a dozen folks I can think of off-hand if you count knowing on a scale from actual neighbors and colleagues in arms, to people active enough in various causes that he knew them and greeted them by name.
This little love letter is not being written for Americans – we know what we lost, but for readers in other places whose picture of America and its people has been distorted, for those who see the worst of us on television and other media and mistake that for the majority.
Pete was a beacon in the darkest times – by which I don’t just mean the War in Vietnam and the struggle for Civil Rights – but Mourning in America – the lost years that began even before Ronald Rayguns and continued after him. A time when it seemed to some of us that many had given up, when the southern strategy was fully adopted by a Republican party that had decided divide and conquer was a legitimate way to win elections, when urban America was no longer considered “real” America by the rural heartland and city-folk were equally dismissive of their country brethren, when our government continued both clandestinely and overtly to fight the cold war (which Reagan did not “win” by the way) through proxies in the mountains and jungles of Guatemala, El Salvador and various other places in the world where right-wing juntas declared war on their own people in the name of free-markets.
Pete was there. And by there I mean ubiquitous. He seemed to show up at every single demonstration, always buoying our spirits and bringing together crowds whose agendas were to say the least disparate. He’d not only sing a few songs, he’d sing the right songs – the ones we needed to hear and he’d make us all sing along and even harmonize. He might not have held the stage the longest, but he was a leader. There was patter and anecdote as well, and overall an amazingly American can-do spirit, that wasn’t so much soppy optimism, as a simple faith that MLK Jr got it right about the arch of history, but we also had within each of us the power to speed justice along a little bit, especially when we raised our voices together.
I still remember something he said between songs at some DC march – was it Nicaragua or El Salvador? Maybe it was nuclear freeze or something else. He talked about how certain right-wing types thought if you let Nicaragua go socialist then the next thing to go would be Guatemala and El Salvador and they called this the domino theory and it was why we lost so many for nothing in Vietnam, and who knows after Central America it would spread to Mexico and then to Texas and even Washington DC. Pete paused for a moment, and then said slyly, “if only it were that easy.”
Of course it isn’t, but he taught us if you keep marching year after year and long after it’s no longer in fashion, and you keep speaking out at injustice, signing petitions, talking to your neighbors, and dredging the garbage in your river, and you never stop singing, you’ll get there eventually and you won’t be alone.
(And btw, over at Facebook there’s a page asking for Governor Cuomo to name the new Tappan Zee Bridge after Seeger. This would be both awesome and appropriate as the bridge is just a bit south of Beacon, NY where Seeger lived, and it’s over the Hudson river which he spent many years trying (mostly successfully) to clean. So why don’t you go over there now and “like.” What’s not to like?)