By Ernie McCray
With Pete Seeger having passed away I can’t pass up an opportunity to share my sentiments about him. I once sang on stage with this incredible loving human being and other master musicians and singers. Peggy Watson with her crisp and pretty voice. Sam Hinton. Folklorist, artist and founder of the San Diego Folk Song Society. Joe Glazer, “Labor’s Troubadour.” It was a sing-along (if you’re wondering how I belonged). We were there to honor John Handcox, a friend of mine who just happened to have written major labor anthems like “Mean Things Happening in this Land” and “Roll the Union On.”
Pete had been singing John’s songs for years. He had no idea that he was alive. But when he found out that he was, indeed, still on earth, in an inner-city San Diego community, he reached out to him and took him on a few tours so that audiences could see and hear the man whose words had rallied them for so long in various labor movements – a man who had been a sharecropper in Arkansas where he made up songs as a way of organizing the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, a man run out of the state by the Klan.
Well, anyone who knows Pete wouldn’t be surprised at how he embraced John. He cares about people deeply and actually saw John as a bigger hero than himself. That says a lot about the man considering all he did in his life as an instrument of social change, singing songs that appeal to people’s faith in their ability to correct in-justices, clear a river of pollutants and make it “swimmer friendly,” end fascism and wars, grant civil and human rights to all people, create working environments where employees are treated fairly, with dignity.
I first met him at John’s house. I liked how we engaged in conversation and got along so easily, totally relaxed in our bantering. We were as one regarding how “We the People” need to think intelligently and speak out and get our society under control. We agreed that singing is good for the soul. We spoke of seeking and achieving peace as a vital human goal. I’ll always remember how, at one point, we looked at each other, after taking a sip of John’s homemade wine, with expressions that said “Damn, I’d spit this out but I don’t want to damage the house!” – while from the kitchen John called out “How’s that wine?” Pete and I burst out laughing.
Nancy, my wife, came into the picture, sparing our having to come up with an elaborate little white lie about John’s generic Thunderbird that could clean a carburetor. She handed Pete a picture and asked “Do you know who that is?” and Pete said “Oh, my goodness, that’s my dad. Where on earth did you get this picture?” Nancy lived next door to Charles Seeger when she was growing up in Pacific Palisades. Pete and Nancy hit it off big time, going on and on about what a magnificent man his dad had been.
The man who raised Pete and my future soulmate used to talk a lot and he would challenge her gently as she, a Goldwater Girl in her teens, tried to find where she stood in the world. He appreciated her for being involved and suggested that she “always keep an open mind” and overtime she gave up her “In Your Heart You know He’s Right” ways of thinking and spent the rest of her life to the far-left of such thinking. And I’m thinking that it was that kind of gentleness that this man showed Nancy that contributed significantly to who Pete Seeger would become.
Pete, had that kind of optimism, that things could change, like his father it seems. What energy and joy and love his approach to changing the world brought us.
His music has rallied folks for a long time going back to the 40’s when he and the other Almanac Singers got people contemplating what was going on in the world with the song, “Which Side are You On.”
He’s entertained us at “hootenannies” featuring traditional tunes like “Goodnight Irene,” “On Top of Old Smokey,” “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine.”
He’s touched our souls in soft places with tunes that were born in his heart and mind like: “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “The Bells of Rhymney” and “If I Had a Hammer” and the classic, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
He had people standing up singing the civil rights hymn “We Shall Overcome” around the globe.
About singing he was quoted as saying “Songs are funny things. They can slip across borders. Proliferate in prisons. Penetrate hard shells. I always believed that the right song at the right moment could change history.” He believed that passionately, as these words are inscribed on his banjo “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
I’ll miss Pete Seeger. With where my passions lie, working to get society to stop sending its children off to war, these words Pete wrote in “Turn! Turn! Turn!” will forever remain with me:
A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time to love, a time to hate
A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late
Rest in peace, my dear friend. You still inspire hope in me. And it is my greatest hope that at some point the world becomes a peaceful village wherein we can all truly say, as you sang so exuberantly “The Lion sleeps tonight.” Only love can get us to such a state.