It’s the mid-‘90s and I’m in the old kitchen of the Red House—summer sunlight slants in and music spills from a little boom box. “Sailin’ up,” Pete Seeger’s voice sings into this room we’re all hanging out in together, and my cousin Bill echoes, “Sailin’ up.” “Up.” “Down.” “Down.” “Up.” “Up and down the river. The river may be dirty now but it’s getting cleaner day by day.” Bill’s more of a fisherman than a sailor, but he’s acquainted with rivers. IBM exec, Catholic deacon, man of prayer, family and food, husband, father, grandfather…not yet, at this time, a painter—evidence, as all those we love are, that people can’t be contained within mere words. What does this have to do with Pete? Nothing except to say that public figures, and especially artists, the ones who inspire story in us, become intertwined with our own stories, become part of the story of the real people we love in real life. The tracks change, Pete and Arlo serenade us. “Just when I thought…all was lost…you changed my mind,” Pete is singing now, and then after the first go-through, he makes his usual invitation: “Hey will you sing it with me? I’ll give you the words.” He sings AND he gives us the words. “You gave me hope…” “Not just the old soft soap,” Bill chimes in as he cooks. “I’ll keep plugging on, Your face will shine through all our tears…” We’re all singing now, I’m singing with Pete and Arlo, with Bill, and with the man I’m in love with, the man I’ll marry, though I don’t know it yet, and I’m thinking that if I’m ever called on to sing a song at Bill’s funeral, this is the one.
It’s the early ‘80s. At Wightwood School, in Branford, CT, we gather every morning in a half-circle on the wide stairs down to the older kids’ wing of the school. I sit among kids of every color, far from the cold white northern village where I’ve mostly been raised. One of my teachers leads us in song, and today it’s a hymn to the country we all come from. “This land is your land,” we sing, “This land is my land.” Woody may have written it, but Pete taught everyone to sing it over and over, so it’s his song, too, in my heart. “As I went walking I saw a sign there, And on the sign it said, “No Trespassing.” I can picture it all, the ribbon of highway, the high wide blue sky arcing above me, can see the split rail fence and the prairie stretching out in every direction, though I know the prairie only from books. When we sing, “But on the other side it didn’t say nothing, That side was made for you and me,” I feel I’ve been let into a divine secret, have been given a gift by a trickster god: the truth that rests beneath the rules and regulations, beneath the laws that govern us. A 3rd grade lesson that resonates through my life, whether reading Alchemy of Race and Rights in grad school, explaining eminent domain to my kids, or listening to the speech about what the land means to us, no less beautiful for its inaccurate attribution to Chief Seattle.
Now it’s early in the new century, and we’re in the kitchen again, my husband and I and our two daughters. This is after Deacon Bill married us one cold March morning at sunrise, out behind my mother’s house, after the trickster god gave us another gift, or rather two gifts at once: twins. Pete is still singing to us: “All around the kitchen, cockadoodle-doodle-doo.” We all dance, the two of us and our clothing-averse toddlers. “Put your hands on your hips.” We do. “And let your right foot slip.” There they go. “Now stop right still.” Everyone freezes, the girls’ eyes wide, beaming with excitement. This is almost the best bit, because the best bit always comes right after it. “Turn all around.” We turn ALL around. Then, at bedtime, we sing, “I know a little girl in red pajamas,” or blue, or green, or purple, because we do—we know two little girls in pajamas, and Pete has taught us songs to sing to them.
January 18, 2009. Pete is up there on stage standing between Bruce Springsteen and Pete’s grandson, a choir of every hue behind him, and behind them, Abraham Lincoln looks out over their heads, gazes upon the well-bundled crowd stretching far out across the mall in Washington on a cold winter day. The occasion is the inauguration of the first black president of the US. Bruce Springsteen is wicked cute—his voice is powerful. Abraham Lincoln has presence. The new president is young and handsome, his wife strong and beautiful. But Pete is the one offering the anthem to the crowd, feeding them the words so that even though the choir is singing straight through after practice and preparation, the crowd can join in, too, can own the song if they want to. Pete is the one—apple-cheeked, righteous, courageous and true, forever young—whose soul is so large that it shines out of him, out of his eyes and face, out of his whole being. Pete is the one who’s not even wearing a coat.
94 years. It’s hard not to become an icon when your career lasts more than 70 years. Pete modeled the act of staying human for all of us. He found a place he loved and stayed there caring for it, he found people he loved and stayed, caring for them, he lived as a human, not a god, while letting the inspiration of the trickster god shine through nonetheless.
Thank you, Pete, for touching me in my private life, for giving me and all of us stories, songs and images that nourish, sustain and teach us, for bringing joy into our kitchens, and for touching us over and over in our public, communal lives as well. “My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation.” When I think of you, Pete Seeger, how can I keep from singing?