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An Unforgettable Glimpse Into Pete Seeger's Genius

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While a college student in the 1970s, I sailed a 41-foot sloop with my brothers and some friends from Maine to the Hudson River to join the Clearwater in the effort to restore the Hudson. The 106-foot sloop Clearwater had made its own voyage in 1969 from South Bristol, Maine (where it was built) to Beacon, New York -- making a reality of Pete Seeger's dream that a replica of a traditional Hudson River sloop could captivate public attention and galvanize support for cleaning up the Hudson.

When Pete Seeger died at the age of 94 last week, he left three extraordinary legacies: all of them world-class. One was of music -- building audiences for folk music and making his own remarkable contributions to it. A second was of environmental activism -- for which the cleaned-up Hudson River and the Clearwater, which still sails as its guardian, are stunning examples. The third was of community, which he built through his music and inspired to focus on such crucial causes as civil rights, human rights, social justice and environmental protection.

Pete Seeger's extraordinary impact stemmed from his steadfast optimism that music could build community and motivate action to improve the world. His genius was in understanding human nature and how to encourage the best of it through his talents.

I experienced first-hand his exceptional understanding of human nature, when I docked that 41-foot sloop at the wharf in Beacon. As I tied down the stern line, I looked up to see Pete Seeger standing next to me. I had cleared our arrival with the captain of the Clearwater but never expected to be met at the dock -- and certainly not by Pete Seeger.

I'll never forget his first words: "I have a problem I wonder if you could help me with." I was just a college student, and here was one of the best-known musicians in the world and he had a problem that he thought I could help him solve. In one sentence, he had added to his community -- and also revealed the secret to his success.

Despite his celebrity, he treated me -- someone he had never met before -- not simply as an equal but as someone who could help him solve a problem that he could otherwise not resolve. That was the key to his remarkable ability to engage audiences; only they -- a group of strangers -- could help him achieve the community that he envisioned.

The problem that concerned him that day on the wharf was a very practical one. While the Clearwater had liability insurance to cover any accidents on board, he doubted that the insurance would cover members of the public who might end up sailing with us -- as an extension, in effect, of the Clearwater. His solution was what was so telling.

He didn't say, "Don't take anyone on the boat," or warn me to be careful. He gave me his home phone number and said, "If someone gets hurt, call me. I'll come down and apologize personally."

He not only accepted my burden as his -- an immediate and selfless act of community -- but he recognized that the involvement of strangers, and the dangers inherent in it, were an essential ingredient to building that community. He also recognized the fundamental power of an apology -- from the right person at the right time.

As iconic as Pete Seeger's many studio albums are, it's his concert albums that reveal the true magic of his music. Those concerts -- whether in renowned halls or informal settings around the world or on the banks of the Hudson River -- invariably became sing-alongs. But what was most remarkable was that Pete Seeger didn't just engage the public by having them participate. He taught his audiences to sing in four-part harmony and learn to become a community.

The community might disband at the end of the concert, but the audience would have been changed. They would have recognized that together they had accomplished more than they could have separately. They would have realized from the four-part harmony that different roles are required in any society and that all are important. They would have seen that relying on strangers had made them better.

Pete Seeger was an extraordinary musician, but it was his commitment to community that set him apart and made his music so impactful. His songs of peace and hope inspired the folk music revival and laid the groundwork for a decade of unprecedented social change in the 1960s; his rendition of "We Shall Overcome" galvanized the Civil Rights Movement; his ballads of the Clearwater energized the environmental movement. He and his music seemed always to say, "I have a problem I wonder if you could help me with."

The author is Chief Operating Officer of Goodman Media International, the New York City-based public relations firm.