The Week Before The Passing of Pete Seeger

PSeegerIt will be almost two years since we lost Pete Seeger, and I still think of him often and miss his voice. In times of trouble and discontent, he would often offer a different perspective on the accepted narrative and he was a calming and rational influence. The story below was written on January 22, 2014 and speaks to the events two days earlier on the national holiday when we honored the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. Pete had a dream for that day, a local acknowledgment in his little town. This is the story.

When Kim Ruehl from the No Depression website tipped me off that there was something goin’ on up in Pete Seeger’s town of Beacon New York on the day we acknowledge the life, work, accomplishments and passing  of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I hit the interwebs to dig up the information. In my mind, whenever the ninety-four year old Pete comes out to do something, it’s pretty damn big news. An event. A happening. A gathering. So it was sort of surprising to discover barely any details of what Pete Seeger and the town of Beacon were up to.

Having recently migrated across the country from California, I inquired around town to my new folkie friends here in the Lower Hudson Valley which led nowhere. Talking to all the Brooklyn hipsters I work with in SoHo led to blank stares. (Note to self: If you live in Manhattan south of 125th Street, or in newly discovered and gradually gentrified Brooklyn, the Bronx is considered “Upstate”. Long Island is just another state. And anything above I-287 and the Tappan Zee Bridge is Lower Canada.)

MLKBeing resourceful, I soon discovered that Beacon was south of Woodstock and north of Croton-On-Hudson, where Pete and the Clearwater Festival converge each June. That was the last time I saw him, leading the crowd in song as he has done for decades, about ten months ago when there wasn’t snow on the ground and a snap in the air. Turns out, it’s just a 75 minute ride from my apartment. A straight shot up the Taconic State Parkway. My oldest son who lives in the city was busy, but my youngest said he’d be willing to wake up early on his Monday holiday and go with me. That is sacrifice.

With early sixties Bob Dylan tunes coming out of the speakers, my son slept while I drove. I imagined that as we got closer to Beacon the traffic would be backed up for miles. Images of Woodstock 1969 danced in my head. Maybe Pete would need a helicopter to get him to the church on time, although I think his house is only about ten minutes out.

I shook my boy up as we rolled into town and drove down the main street, which may or may not have also been the name of it. ‘Look for the crowds’, I said. There were none. ‘Keep looking’, I said. There were none. ‘Over there’, he exclaimed.

So I followed the only other moving car on the street, and turned right when they did. A church. A steeple. And now I saw the people. I’ll guesstimate there were about five hundred souls who entered the doors and took seats in the chapel of this simple yet beautiful Baptist church.

MLKDayTaking to the pulpit, a large and handsome man stood tall and proud. This was his flock. This was his community. These…or rather we…were his congregation. “Dr. King’s dream for Beacon has arrived today,” said the Rev. Ronald Perry of Springfield Baptist. “We’re all God’s children and we can come together in fellowship … moving forward for a better community and a better world.”

King’s dream wasn’t the only one to come true on Monday.

Pete Seeger; he had one too.

Seeger’s vision was “a community parade in honor of King, to accompany the annual birthday celebration” of which the church has been doing for thirty-five years, said Bonnie Champion, an event organizer and member of Seeger’s Hudson River Sloop Clearwater environmental group. He wanted to make sure that the federal holiday — the only one designated as a national day of service — meant something special to the community. “This is his dream,” Champion said on Sunday evening. “He wants his vision to grow with the children.”

MLK DY2And so, on three separate weeknights, Pete…did I mention he is ninety-four…came over to the church to teach the local community the three songs he sang alongside Dr. King on the march from Selma to Montgomery. “We Shall Overcome”. “Oh Wallace”. “If You Miss Me at the Back Of The Bus”.

The last time I had a good, hard cry was in the days after 9/11. But sitting in that church, listening to the Reverend, waiting for Pete to come and lead us out to the street where we would march just around the block and raise our voices together…at that moment I felt a tear. And another and another and another. I could feel myself on the balcony of that Memphis motel standing next to Dr. King. In the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel with Bobby. And on the plaza with JFK.

Just as easy as I choke up simply writing these words, my body shook and my son put his hand on top of mine and held it there. I’m sixty-two, and all at once the weight of the past fifty years of life events enveloped and rained down on me. My eyes were shut when I heard the room get quiet. While on his way here, by car, not helicopter…Pete felt too ill to make the short walk. The Poughkeepsie Journal later reported that the crowd was disappointed.

I will tell you what I witnessed. They were not.

MLK3The Journal got this part right: “It was clear that Seeger accomplished his goal; religious and political. “It has drawn such an attraction to the purpose of this day,” Rev. Perry said of the parade. “People are coming out with children; they’ve been celebrating, singing.”

And that we did. Filing out of the church we raised our voices in song. Proud to be here in this moment. We marched, or rather we walked slowly. I don’t think anyone wanted to rush through this. Six short blocks. In a small town. South of Canada.

At the end, as we all filed back into the church one more time for a brief slide show on the history of slavery and the civil rights movement, and food and more music, someone started to sing a different song. Not one Pete planned to lead this day. A song that just came out of the cold Beacon air and into our lungs and hearts and back out to our world.

This little light of mine
I’m going to let it shine
Oh, this little light of mine
I’m going to let it shine
Hallelujah
This little light of mine
I’m going to let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

Ev’ry where I go
I’m going to let it shine
Oh, ev’ry where I go
I’m going to let it shine
Hallelujah
Ev’ry where I go
I’m going to let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

All in my house
I’m going to let it shine
Oh, all in my house
I’m going to let it shine
Hallelujah
All in my house
I’m going to let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

I’m not going to make it shine
I’m just going to let it shine
I’m not going to make it shine
I’m just going to let it shine
Hallelujah
I’m not going to make it shine
I’m just going to let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

Out in the dark
I’m going to let it shine
Oh, out in the dark
I’m going to let it shine
Hallelujah
Out in the dark
I’m going to let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

MLK4Postscript: Just a week later, on Monday the 27th of January 2014, a small paper from upstate New York reported his death. The story was posted on their website and then pulled down. And then the entire site went down. Credit goes to The Fretboard Journal as one of the very first that reported the news, followed by Variety and the New York Times. At the same time, there were several people who posted on social media that perhaps it was just a hoax. I had the feeling it wasn’t. It didn’t take long to discover that Pete had indeed passed on. But the music and dream remained, and still does.