In 2004, I woke up on a couch in the cabin that Pete Seeger had built on a hill outside Beacon, New York. His grandson Tao was staying there and I was hanging with Tao. The Seegers lived across the driveway in a modern house.
I heard Mr. Seeger had built the cabin by himself. Sitting in the log living room having coffee, I stared at the massive stone lintel over the fireplace. It must have weighed 500 pounds.
Grandpa walked over to visit with us in the afternoon. Tao encouraged me to play a song. Mr. Seeger listened intently and then apologized for his poor hearing. He sat beside me and asked me to speak the lyrics again. He asked questions until he was sure he understood.
I had one question for him. I pointed at the fireplace and asked, "How did you get that stone into place?"
He smiled and reminisced for a moment. "I lifted one end and wedged a stone underneath it. Then I lifted up the other end and got a stone under that side. I kept going like that until I had it where I wanted it. It took a while."
Pete Seeger was not in the tradition that I grew up with. In that moment, sitting with him on the couch where I'd slept, I couldn't have picked his voice out of a lineup. Tao introduced me to his grandpa's music later that day with an unreleased solo recording of a college gig in the sixties. The music was riveting, but it almost didn't matter.
Pete Seeger was bigger than music. He was John Henry. He was Odysseus. He was Gabriel. He will not be contained in a thousand obituaries today, however hard we write. He will not be complete in the history books. When I met him he was a deaf old man who hardly seemed capable of half his legend, but I asked the right question and he told me his secret. When I think of him now, it's the only thing I really know about him:
When a thing seemed impossible, he saw that it was only difficult. Then he worked until it was inevitable.
Yesterday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, he laid down his hammer and he died. Rest in peace, Pete Seeger.
Jonathan Byrd is a North Carolina preacher's son, a Gulf War veteran and "one of the top 50 songwriters of the past 50 years" (Rich Warren, Chicago Tribune). Visit his website:
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