As Pete Seeger rides out his eighties with a number of awards and musical tributes, a new documentary entitled Pete Seeger: The Power of Song attempts to capture his monumental life on film. Though not yet in full theatrical release, just watching the online trailer excited me as to its possibilities. It also brought back many memories, for Seeger has had a huge impact on me personally, intensified by my having had the opportunity not only to see him in concert a half a dozen times or more, but also to spend some time with him off-stage when I was a teenager.
It was during my stint as a crewmember on the Clearwater, an authentic replica of the kind of sloop that used to sail up and down the Hudson River around the turn of the century. The purpose of the Clearwater was -- and continues to be -- to make people aware of the polluted condition of the river and to educate them as to what they can do about it. The sloop would stop at every little upstate New York town from Harrison to Albany during the summer months and host a riverfront event that would include taking local residents out for a sail.
Seeger had been associated with the Clearwater from the beginning; in fact, he is credited with having come up with the idea. Though the sloop had been carrying out its educational mission for a couple of years by then, and there was a non-profit organization formed to see that it continued to do so, he was still hands-on involved and known to show up on occasion. That's what I was hoping for when we docked one morning at a little town not far from where Seeger lived in Beacon. Sure enough, I climbed up the narrow stairs from below deck and there he was, banjo in hand.
Anyone fortunate enough to have attended a Pete Seeger concert during his more than six decades of performing knows that he has an uncanny ability for evoking communitas just by standing there on stage. For a brief time the barriers come down between people and they return to what I believe is the natural human condition: feeling connected to one's neighbor. Seeger is our homegrown musical Gandhi demonstrating that as our voices harmonize, so can our lives, and so can our world. Needless to say, I was excited to be around him up close -- not in a concert hall, but surrounded by water and sky.
Later in the day we took a group of townspeople out for an afternoon sail in the mild, sunny weather. Seeger sat with a cluster of them, talking about the history of the Hudson. He was saying that the river used to be a favorite subject for 19th century American painters, as well as a choice spot for poets, lovers, and picnickers, and how only in the last fifty years had factories been built up along its shores that were now dumping tons of waste into the water daily.
"You tell 'em, Pete," said a man sitting by the tiller, raising his can of beer as if to give a toast. He then tossed the can over the side of the ship.
Seeger got up and walked away from the group, and stood, his back to us, looking out at the water. I wanted to go over to him, but I felt too stunned and too young. I would have said, "That man's just a jerk. Don't let him get you down." It was a shock to discover that even Pete Seeger, surrounded by supporters and friends on the Clearwater, was vulnerable to this kind of thing. What is wrong with some people?
The slosh of the water against the hull had a soothing effect that helped me regain my composure. And it wasn't surprising that in a short time Seeger was again talking animatedly with another cluster of people. But I didn't expect that the configuration of circumstances and my own brashness would soon result in a moment so astonishingly wonderful that the memory of it sustains me to this day.
Seeger had taken out his banjo and was singing Hudson River songs and then I got out my guitar, and just like that we were playing together. After a while he took a break and I asked him if I could play his banjo. It seems like a bold request in retrospect, but the emotional pull of it at the time was such that I did not think twice. I knew--though I could not then have put it into words -- that to hold Pete Seeger's banjo and to bring forth music from it would be an initiation, situating me in a lineage of radical folksingers. In any event, the request and its fulfillment took place in a split second--he handed me the banjo, his long, straight arm extending at the elbow.
I realize now that this was classic Pete Seeger: he would rather have trusted an irreplaceable possession to an awkward 15-year-old to whom it would mean the world--than to keep it locked up in a plush case, safe from the mishaps as well as the magic in which it might become involved. I scampered away like a squirrel with a nut. I knew where I wanted to go: up to the crow's-nest. Seeger was immediately engaged in conversation; I don't know if he noticed me scaling the rope ladder with his banjo strapped around my back!
So there I was, high in the basket of the crow's-nest, with the late afternoon sun shining golden on the water. I heard the creak of the wooden mast and felt the gentle rock of the ship as I watched the Catskill Mountains off in the distance. Examining the banjo, I saw the words Pete had written with his own hand so many years before, words that stretched all around the sounding board in a circle: THIS MACHINE SURROUNDS HATE AND FORCES IT TO SURRENDER. In Seeger's hands the words on the banjo had been known to come true. Crisp notes rang out over the water as I plucked the responsive strings, my outer palm resting on the parchment sounding board and my inner elbow along the tarnished silver rim.
Pete Seeger: The Power of Song will air on PBS as part of the American Masters series on February 27, and will be released on DVD after that. Judging by its numerous rave reviews, it appears to succeed in capturing some of Seeger's greatness onscreen. Variety describes the documentary as a "terrific, multilayered portrait of a singer whose legacy extends beyond music and into every major social action movement since the 1940s." Even the New York Times, normally snooty when reviewing small productions, describes it as "an affectionate, detailed portrait of its subject," and acknowledges Seeger as "a living presence whose best songs grow less quaint and more urgent every day."
Indeed, at a time when some of the most hallowed words associated with our democracy--truth, liberty, justice, freedom--have been co-opted by an administration whose noble sounding rhetoric has no correspondence to its base actions, even a brief and indirect contact with a man of Seeger's integrity can embolden us to go further in resisting the iniquities of our day. As he says in the trailer, "If you love your country, you'll find ways to speak out, to do what you think is right."
Mark Klempner is a social commentator, historian, and author of The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage. Visit his website www.hearthasreasons.com. This piece originally appeared at thesocialedge.com.