Tuesday, February 4, 2014

My Greatest Teacher

I heard the songs he wrote, adapted or otherwise shared with the world long before I knew there was a guy named Pete Seeger who was a famous singer. In later years as I learned more about him and had the chance to spend some time talking with him I realize that’s exactly the way he would want it to be. It seemed that for Pete fame was a useful, if sometimes uncomfortable, way to get songs out into the world to do the good work that needed to be done.
When I worked in radio our station had a closet filled with promo records that the program director had decided we were never going to play. DJs were able to sift through these piles of albums and take whatever we wanted. One day I found a batch of Pete’s Columbia releases and took them home. I was aware that he was the guy who had written “If I Had a Hammer” and some other tunes but not much else. I started listening to the albums and I was transfixed. I felt like I had opened a magic door to an amazing world that was hiding in plain view. It was as if the songs on those albums were diamonds that had been laying on the ground all around me and I had seen them a thousand times, just never really noticed them. I also discovered that he was a brilliant instrumentalist on 12 string guitar and banjo, I dug out an old 5 string banjo from my parent’s house and started trying to play like Pete. Just one of a couple million other pickers who have fallen under that simply beautiful spell.
As I began to seek out all things Pete I discovered that those old albums in the public library with the thick cardboard covers were indeed Pete Seeger’s old Folkways albums and once again I tumbled into another wonderland. There was, and is, such power in the simplicity of his arrangements of traditional folk songs often accompanied by only his banjo sketching out the melody under his voice. Soon I was filling up notebooks with the words and chords to hundreds of folks songs that I learned from listening to those albums over and over and over again.  In those long lost days before the internet, YouTube, mp3s and such seeking out those recordings was something akin to an archeological expedition.  One of the many things I discovered about Pete over time was his incredibly pragmatic optimism.  Anyone who lived so long and experienced so much could be excused for longing for the good old days or griping about the way things are today but Pete seemed to always be looking for what was good and possible all around him, maybe that looking is what helped him find so much good and do so much.  To hear him talk, the world was constantly in need of good deeds and the possibilities for how we could accomplish those good deeds was always increasing.
The first time I met Pete was at a gathering of The People’s Music Network for Songs of Freedom and Struggle. There were workshops and song sharing sessions and I had been taking pictures at one of Pete’s workshops. Another attendee came up to me and told me that Pete really didn’t like people taking pictures during the workshops. Later in the day I found Pete and asked him about the photos. The first thing he said was “Aren’t you the guy who sang that song about living on a farm last night?, that was great”. He then said “You know, I used to think that music was the universal language but I’ve come to believe its photography because pictures are instantly understandable to anyone anywhere.” We then talked for an hour or so about photography and ways to use images in conjunction with music. He told me he was writing about this gathering for Sing Out and asked if I would send photos to them for his article.
I learned over time that this was pure Pete. If someone came up and told him they loved his music or thought he was the greatest banjo player he’d be polite and friendly but if you came up and said something like “Pete, I just found an old garage full of tractor tires what do you think we could do with that?” His eyes would light up and he’d be tossing out twenty ideas to the dozen.
I often admired his energy and I think he was a master at soaking up the energy of the people who were around him and radiating it back ten-fold.
As a writing teacher I often talk about finding a “mentor author” to study, Pete was my mentor songwriter for sure. When I play a song of mine like “One New Road” and see people singing along the first time they’ve heard it I know Pete’s lessons are coming through. I listened to many of his songs when I was writing “Paul Robeson Song (Powerful Voice)” and had the somewhat scary experience of playing it for the first time in public with Pete sitting in the front row. When I finished the song I stepped off stage and was kneeling down to put my guitar in the case when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned and there was Pete “Now, that’s a damn good song!” He said. That was just pure Pete.
Of course Pete would die someday. I often wondered about how I would feel. I did have a little practice though. I remember waking up to the radio when he was given the Kennedy Center Honors award. I woke up to the sound of President Clinton’s voice talking about Pete and saying all kinds of wonderful things. “Oh no, I thought Pete must have died, the President is saying all these wonderful things about him” I couldn’t imagine the President of the United States saying something nice about Pete Seeger unless he had died. A few months later I was able to share this experience with Pete who thought it was pretty funny.  I only met him a few times, played music together once or twice, just like ten thousand or more other pickers and singers.  However I'd be willing to bet that anyone who has been touched by his music felt they knew him as a friend.  From what I saw he would get a group of people singing spontaneously at some gathering and he would also work hard with a group getting every note just right.  He began his work as a songwriter when standard musical notation was the form to share songs and lived to see digital files of his songs flying around the world, and always was delighting in whatever way the songs could do the work they were meant to do in this world.
That old physical part of Pete is gone but so much is still here. When I read the news this morning I felt sad but not overwhelmed. Maybe because it was morning and I was getting ready to take my son to school and get to work myself I was rushing around and the news was still sinking in. We went out and got in the car. I turned the key, the radio was on and instantly the car was filled with the chiming electric twelve strings of The Byrds playing “Turn, Turn, Turn” from the back seat I heard my son singing along and that’s when I really cried. It was pure Pete, one of his many gifts being passed along to the next generation.
To everything there is a season, indeed and we’re so fortunate to have been here for the Season of Pete.
He once sang “To my old brown earth and to my old blue sky, I’ll now give these last few molecules of I”. Pete truly gave every last molecule of “I”. He’s a part of my world as much as sun and sky and always will be my greatest teacher.

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