When I was about five years old—that would be 1956, when the U.S. was crawling out from the McCarthy era–my parents took me to a children’s concert. I sat close to the stage, looking way, way up at this beanpole of a man. He stretched his neck like a plucked chicken, and picked tinny notes from a long-necked banjo. He told a story about a scary giant with slobbery teeth. To my utter amazement, he sang and danced like a demented cricket all around the stage. I’d never seen a grown-up act so silly. It was wonderful.
It seemed like all the adults in my life knew Pete’s songs. At home, my parents played Weavers’ albums.
At summer camp, one of the counselors played the banjo just like Pete. The whole camp gathered in one big room. Counselor Tom led our afternoon Sing Time. “Go tell Aunt Rhody,” we sang, and I wondered why the goose died in a “milk pond.”
In the 1960s, the songs of the Civil Rights Movement flowed through my days. I listened to the record album We Shall Overcome over and over.
Then I was a camp counselor myself, teaching the kids to sing Pete Seeger songs: “Ragapati ragava raja Ram.” And later I was a teacher, and a mother, passing on these songs that were woven into the fabric of my life.
Wonder of wonders, we moved to the Hudson Valley and joined the Beacon Sloop Club. At the 1983 Clearwater Revival, when my baby girl was just three months old, I sat with her on my lap listening to Pete and the Sloop Singers sing about the Broad Ol’ River while cottonwood fluff drifted overhead.
Had you told me when I was an eighteen-year-old camp counselor that one day I’d be sharing the stage with Pete Seeger, I would not have believed it. Those days as a Sloop Singer were some of the richest, most exciting experiences of my life. To sing in the company of Pete and all the other accomplished musicians (far more able than I) was utter joy.
So were the seasonal festivals. My kids and I sold tickets at the Clearwater Revival, cooked chili at the Pumpkin Festival (where Toshi scolded me for composting celery ends), and got happily soaked at the Weed Wallow.
A song by Greg Brown that I brought from Iowa particularly took Pete’s interest. “Early Iowa” stuck to me and became “my” song when Sloop Singers gathered. It was an ironic match, as my sojourn in Iowa had been a tough, lonely couple of years in my married life. But there I was, singing about Iowa with a full backup chorus.
On Friday nights at the Beacon Sloop Club meetings, the members traded songs with Pete who grinned and sang and told stories. My son stayed close by, but my baby girl passed from lap to lap. That small cabin filled with joyful noise, a whirlwind of harmony swirling around the man who was a musical lodestone for much of my life.
I owe most of the songs I know to Pete Seeger. He is lodged in my cellular memory. He taught us all the power of song. In the same way that I hold my parents in my heart, Pete Seeger is a continuous living presence.