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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

An evening with Grandpa Pete and friends

I remember the first concert I ever took my son to hear. Ian was only a few weeks old and my wife's union at Yale University was on strike. Had she not been on maternity leave, Kimberly, too, would have been on the picket lines. As it was, we were in the crowd, holding our baby in our arms, as Pete Seeger gave a benefit concert to support the workers.

I grew up listening to records (that's 33s, not 78s, thank you) of Pete Seeger's music. My family would sing "Turn, Turn Turn" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," among other songs, on long car trips. It wasn't until I went to college that I started to really learn about Pete Seeger as a person and about his work during the depression, traveling the country to preserve America's folk music. It was later still that I came to understand Pete's persecution by Sen. Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. When I started playing guitar, I got a copy of Rise Up Singing, the folk music anthology that was Pete's brainchild and I keep a copy of it in my banjo case.

Back in 2001, my family made our first trip to the Clearwater Festival, the environmental and cultural festival that Pete Seeger hosts each June in Croton on Hudson, NY. I've chatted with him about renewable energy and his little red pickup truck that is 100% electric. Two years ago, I was a guest crewmember on Seeger's environmental education sloop, Clearwater, when she and Amistad were both sailing out of Poughkeepsie. Pete has signed -- and played!! -- my banjo.

Tonight, my family went to see Pete perform in Paramus, at the bandshell behind the public library. He was joined by his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and by bluesman Guy Davis. At 89, Pete's voice is strained and his banjo picking has slowed down a bit. He lets his fellow performers do the heavy lifting, but there's no questioning that the show is still his. Both Rodriguez-Seeger and Davis made frequent references to Seeger as being family that they are glad to be able to share with us. In many ways, Seeger has become something like a grandfather figure to me and I'm indebted to Rodriguez-Seeger and Davis for making in possible for Grandpa Pete to keep making music.

The concert was a brief one, just an hour long, but it had the feeling of classic Seeger performance, with a the audience joining in to sing on "This Little Light of Mine," and almost all of the songs. As with Seeger's other performances, current events and social concerns were evident for those who were paying attention. The three musicians kicked off the music with the Huddie Leadbetter, a.k.a. Leadbelly, song "Midnight Special," with an updated verse:

If you ever go to Washington, you'd better walk right.
You'd better not scuffle and you'd better not fight.
For the sherriff will arrest you and he's gonna take you down.
You can bet your bottom dollar, you're Guantanamo bound.

When Seeger led "This Land is Your Land," we sang all of the verses, not just the ones we all learned in school:

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple
by the relief office, I saw the people
as they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tresspassin'
But on the other side, it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!

Nobody living can ever stop me
as I go walking that Freedom Highway.
Nobody living can make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

Davis offered the evening's only "performance piece," a truly impressive harmonica and vocal number he called "Railroad Story," where he wove together vocal sound effects such as hounds barking and pigs grunting with the music of his harmonica. Rodriguez-Seeger led the final number, Guantanamera, (person from Guantanamo), which brought us full-circle. The lyrics of one of the verses, written by Cuban poet Jose Marti in 1895, translate to:

And for the cruel one who would tear out this heart with which I live,
I do not grow nettles nor thistles, I grow a white rose.

We need more white roses in the world, especially in places like Guantanamo, where our government imprisons "enemy combatants" from the "war on terror" and uses interrogation techniques which, if they were used on our military personnel, we wouldn't hesitate to label as torture. If we could learn to respond with roses instead of thistles, as Seeger sings, or even learn to love our enemies, as Jesus taught, we might even be able to break the cycle of fear and violence that breeds terrorism in the first place. We might even finding ourselves living in what that old Peter Seeger song called "a time of peace. I swear its not too late."

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