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Ballad of a Nonagenarian

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It’s not hard to see where Seeger got his obsessions. His father was a composer who “thought the great symphonies would save the human race” but who later became a political radical obsessed with the power of folk music. When Pete was a baby, his dad took the family on a disastrous trip down the East Coast, towing a homemade trailer full of instruments in an effort to bring music to good country people. (The trip was called off when baby Pete almost walked into a fire.) The son inherited the father’s impractical sense of mission. As a young man, he dropped out of Harvard, played with Woody Guthrie, and rode in open boxcars around the country, living off his banjo. Eventually, he saved enough to buy a patch of forest on a riverside mountain, cleared two acres of it himself, and built his own cabin out of the logs. In 1949, after Seeger played a concert with the African-American singer Paul Robeson, his car was ambushed by vandals throwing baseball-size stones from point-blank range. (Seeger kept two of the stones and built them into his fireplace.) In the late sixties, a Vietnam veteran, angry about Seeger’s pacifism, showed up at a concert and told him, “I think I should tell you, I came here this afternoon to kill you.” Instead, the man listened to the concert—apparently hearing Seeger’s music for the first time—and said afterward that his anger had been “cleansed.”

Through it all, Seeger remained the idealist’s idealist. After the blackballing let up, he refused a steady TV job because the network asked him to sign a loyalty oath. Instead, he took his family on a shoestring trip around the world to hear native cultures play their native music. Back in America, he protested wars and marched to Montgomery, Alabama. He coordinated the building of a ship called the Clearwater, a replica nineteenth-century sloop that gives educational rides on the Hudson—a campaign that has helped make the formerly poisonous river swimmable for most of its length.

The second reason I know who Pete Seeger is is that a few years ago I ended up moving, totally by accident, all the way across the country from my father to the little town on the Hudson where Seeger has lived for 60 years. I am writing this article, in fact, in an office at the old high school where Seeger once played a controversial concert at the height of the Vietnam War. I see him occasionally around town: tall, rail-thin (he was encouraged to play the banjo because, the musicologist John Lomax said, “he just looked like a banjo”), wearing his knit cap, picking up trash. Every June he serves strawberry shortcake at a festival at our riverfront park, which natives tell me was some kind of flaming toxic waste dump before the Clearwater came around. He’s visited my daughter’s preschool class. I’ve even overcome my crowd-singing aversion, temporarily, to sing Christmas carols with him on Main Street.

One night last fall, before the election, Seeger was scheduled to sing at a local fund-raiser. Instead, at the last minute, he went on Late Night With David Letterman. As a child of the MTV era, I’ve been conditioned to think of celebrity in cynical terms, and Seeger’s choice that night made me doubt, momentarily, the order of the universe. Was the most earnest, community-based man in America really going to blow off a political event with his small-town mates to promote a record on possibly the most ironic show in the history of network television? Was the Seeger legend, after all, too good to be true?

After the fund-raiser, my wife and I sat down and watched Letterman. As soon as Seeger appeared, with his white hair and his jeans and his button-down shirt, I knew order had been restored. His presence was a category error. He went on to give one of the weirdest and most powerful TV performances I’ve ever seen, whisper-singing a springy, earnest tune about the lessons of Martin Luther King Jr. in the post-9/11 world. He asked the crowd to sing along. They were reluctant. He didn’t care, and eventually they gave in. He treated them not like the background setting for his televised conquest of the promotional universe but like what they actually were: a room full of real, individual, aware, responsible, potentially political humans. He transformed a TV audience into a group of men and women. Even though he was 60 miles downriver, in midtown Manhattan, he might as well have been in our living room. That’s the power of Pete Seeger: No matter what he’s doing, no matter what your level of resistance, he always finds a way to make you join in.


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