I love a good story and a fine song and I try to live in hope as often as my little heart is able. Even when that little heart feels laid bare to the world. Is there some word for when one’s heart is wounded and mourning, but also hopeful and filled with love? There must be a word for this.* The ever so dear Pete Seeger passed away on Monday and, though it hurts to see him go, he was a glorious gem of a human while he was here. He blessed us with a legacy of music to move our hearts and minds for generations yet to come. When I was a child, I had no consciousness of who Pete Seeger was. He entered my life in a series of emotional and musical impressions.
Impression the First – A hot summer day (’76, maybe ’77) on a highway somewhere between Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Pine City, Minnesota.
Brother Mine rides shot gun in a bright yellow van. My dad, a handsome man, his hair grown thick and shaggy and a rakish mustache nestled atop his lip, drives with one hand on the steering wheel and one hand holding a cigarette to his lips. The windows are rolled down and the air whistling by helps cool the sweat gathering on my hairline. I am perched on an upturned milk crate between Brother Mine and Dad (seat belts being a newish idea with only a handful of devotees). My parents are divorced. Dad has picked us up from where we are living with our mom in South Dakota and is taking us for a visit with our paternal grandparents at their cabin in Minnesota. To entertain on this seemingly interminable drive, he tells us a story of a boy and a girl and a giant rabbit who own a time machine spaceship. Their adventures are astonishing, highly improbable, and a wonder of impromptu storytelling. He also sings a story song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” that feels, in my impressionable young heart, somehow connected to who my father is, who my parents are, and who I will become. Though, of course, I have no words for this at the time. My father had volunteered in the army, trained to be a helicopter pilot, and shipped out to Vietnam when I was still a babe in arms. Now – several years after returning to the states, leaving the army and my mother, and coming for a rare visit – my father teaches me to sing this song. Between long drags on his cigarette, he sings, “Where have all the young men gone, long time passing? Where have all the young men gone, long time ago? Where have all the young men gone? Gone to soldiers everyone. When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?” And then the soldiers gone to graveyards and the graveyards to flowers. At this age, it does not occur to me to ask my father about the irony of a man who volunteers to go to war singing an anti-war song. I do not yet have the words to ask about his experience in Vietnam or the understanding to know he may not tell me even if I ask. But I do know that the song speaks to me something about sadness and leave taking. It says something I can’t yet articulate about my father and my mother and the passing of their youth. I ask my dad to sing the verses over and over until I have committed the song to memory. Then I sing it with all my little heart for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles on the long road from Sioux Falls to Pine Lake, until Brother Mine and Dad ask me to stop, filled, as they are, to their eye sockets and ear drums with my warbling. For me, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” is always tied to this memory. It is always wrapped up in the sun and the heat. It is wrapped in this image of my father, his cigarettes and his sweat, and the roguish smile beneath his mustache which belies this notion (new and strange to me) of humanity’s inability to learn from their own wretched ways. I don’t know who Pete Seeger is yet, but he has made an indelible impression on me just the same.
Impression the Second – A warm fall day on a hill behind an elementary school. Children sitting in the cool grass. Sunshine on our shoulders (‘79, maybe ‘80).
Our new music teacher is Miss Wood, Holly Wood (true story). She is young and filled with light. Sitting amongst our circle of cross-legged little bodies, an acoustic guitar nested in her lap, she tells us stories about traveling with a group called Up With People and singing peace through all the land. The sunshine blazes through her halo of curls as she takes up her instrument to teach us – in the purist voice I think I’ve ever heard – “If I Had a Hammer.” She teaches us all the words through call and response, just as, I will later learn, Pete Seeger is wont to do in his performances. I’ll hammer out danger. My little heart pounds away in my body. The rhythm of the song pulses up out of the ground beneath me. I’ll ring out a warning. My little heart rings out with joy. The air around me buzzes with electricity. I’ll sing out love between my brothers and my sisters all over the land. My little heart sings out with hope and my voice sings out with abandon. Miss Wood is like the Pied Piper of my sweet, sweet little heart. I have sunshine and green grass and music and, best of all, a voice! I have a hammer of justice and a bell of freedom and song about love in my heart. I think I will sing forever. At some point in the next few years another little girl will tell me I don’t have a singing voice. I will believe her for a long time, until I am much older and remember that I love to sing and I don’t give a damn if I sound any good. But on this day, in the grass and the sun and the presence of some kind of unidentifiable glory, I will sing myself silly and dizzy with justice, freedom and love.
You’ll notice that these impressions come from my early childhood. Impressionable times. Pete Seeger had a way with children. He believed that children and women would be the ones to change the world. He stood up, with his banjo held high, in solidarity with women, children, workers, immigrants, the homeless, the oppressed. All people. He sang for us. He sang with us. In an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, he said he thought of life as a sort of see saw with baskets on each end. The basket on one end is filled with stones. You know, heavy, immovable stones (the injustices and woes of the world). And on the other end there are all these folks bringing teaspoon after teaspoon of sand to fill the other bucket. The sand sometimes seeps out or gets tipped over, but this teaspoon brigade goes on and on and even grows. Someday the balance will tip. Once, when asked if he was ever discouraged, Pete said, “I say ‘the hell with it’ every night at 9:30, then I get up the next morning. Besides, if you sing for children, you can’t really say there’s no hope.”
For days now, I’ve been watching interviews with and songs sung by Pete Seeger. Pete telling his stories. Pete as a young man. Pete as an old man. Pete raising up his banjo as he plays. Undoubtedly, I have a thing for men with banjoes and guitars. Steve Martin makes me weak in my knees. I’m terribly fond of Johnny Cash. But it is Pete Seeger who swells my heart and moves my spirit. What I want now is pretty much all I have ever wanted…to believe in the goodness of the world. To practice humanity. To live in hope. Failing every day and trying again the next. Carl Sandburg called Pete “America’s tuning fork.” An apt metaphor. And I wonder…can I do that? Can I be a tuning fork for my children? Can I sing to them, raise them up with song? Will I screw up? Will I fall down? Will I say “to hell with it,” and still get up the next morning and sing again, to resonate in their hearts? To give them a hammer, a bell, a song, or just a little teaspoon filled with justice freedom and love? I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. I dwell in hope.
I’ll leave you with this link to a YouTube video of Pete singing “Inch by Inch.” What’s more hopeful than that?
*After a brief Google search, I found this Portuguese word saudade, which seems to come closest to what I mean. It has no direct translation in English, though Wikipedia cites that the connotation of saudade is something along the lines of: “Saudade was once described as ‘the love that remains’ after someone is gone. Saudade is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again.”