I know I was not the only one taken aback by their depth of grief over this surrogate grandfather. Or, in Bruce Springsteen’s words: “your granddad, if your granddad could kick your ass.”
And so, during a spring visit to a songwriting workshop at the Grunewald Guild, I used the weekend to embark on a full-immersion Pete Seeger retreat - reading, listening, writing all things Pete. Story after story of people “happening” onto Pete’s homestead and staying for a chat or a meal. How Pete, as he sang work songs, would actually split wood up on the stage (until finally, as he grew older and more frail, his concerned family took away the axe). I recognized the one gesture that tied together every video I saw of him in concert: his hand cupped at his ear, motioning for the audience to join in. He was not there because he loved the spotlight. He was there to USE the spotlight, and the mic was there not so that he could be the only voice, but so he could call out the words to the crowd for their sung response.
But of course this is not just what made Pete Pete. Pete's character was also defined by his fervent action towards social and ecological justice. His humanitarianism. Bruce Springsteen also described Pete as “a walking, singing reminder of America’s history -- a living archive of America’s music and conscience."
Early on in my own self-directed musical education, I was reading about Woody Guthrie, and was torn by the dichotomy of his life. His genius and social action was coupled with abominable behavior to his family, especially his first wife, who he basically abandoned, destitute, with three young children. When you read about Woody, you don’t hear about this. Except if you ask Pete. A friend and champion of Woody Guthrie, Pete was not afraid to name the darker side of Woody’s character as well. I appreciated Pete’s unflappable-ness in telling the whole story.
And so, by the end of my full-immersion Pete Seeger weekend, I had a song that was, true to the folk tradition, chock-full of other people’s imagery. The verse melody of this song is taken from the Woody Guthrie tune “Pretty Boy Floyd”. The bridge borrows heavily from Bruce Springsteen’s homage to Pete, in which he describes Pete’s commitment to singing “every verse every time.” And, the chorus borrows lyrics from Pete’s own songs “If I had a Hammer” and “One Grain of Sand”.
(Here's a demo of the song on soundcloud)
The loss I felt after Pete’s death was followed by a small panic, wondering who on earth was going to take up the reins and continue this work of singing the whole truth of America’s history. I did not come up with one name that shone quite like the beacon of Pete’s. But I did come up with a long list of folks who are tirelessly pounding the pavement, brandishing their creativity like the truth-telling weapon it is. And if you ask any of them who their favorite ass-kicking granddad is, I’ll bet you a banjo that I can name him.
More on the subject of Pete:
Here’s Bruce Springsteen’s tribute at Pete’s 90th birthday concert. Of all the tributes that I read and listened to, this was my favorite.
Here’s an interview with Terry Gross of Fresh Air, talking with Pete. Pete tells stories of his experience with the dark side of American history (and often breaks into song while doing it).
And then, my all time favorite musical moment on the internet (no exaggeration here): a duet between Pete Seeger and Joni Mitchell. They sing Joni’s song “Both Sides Now”, with an additional verse at the end written by Pete. I used to sit on my bed with my guitar and sing this song over and over (and OVER) in my room during my melancholic high school days. Finding this version, with Pete's addition at the end offering assurance in the form of “you are not alone”, breaks me wide open. Still can’t listen to it with dry eyes.
Pete splitting wood up on stage? Proof