Pete Seeger upstairs at the People's Church on Lawrence Avenue in Chicago; rail thin, head thrust out, jeans and flannel shirt with rolled up sleeves, picking banjo, leading the crowd in song -- his voice is almost gone now. And it doesn't even matter. He has taught us.
He lifts his right hand from the banjo ever so slightly, a welcome to all, and then like a community having lived each moment of their very lives together, we sing:
"Inch by inch, row by row,
Gonna make this garden grow."
Just east of the Peoples Church on this rain speckled gray city night, decades earlier, Studs Terkel tells the story of the two cross country travelers, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, needing a place to stay in Chicago that night. Studs went on ahead to make sure it was all right with his angelic wife Ida. And that night, Seeger and Guthrie spent the night on the Terkel's kitchen floor.
Pete Seeger slept on kitchen floors, rode the rails, sometimes with Guthrie, sometimes alone. He made over 100 albums, sold millions of records, sang to millions all over the world. Yet upon induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, Arlo Guthrie noted that "Goodnight Irene" reached #1 and then The New York Times reports, Guthrie added, "I can't think of a single event in Pete Seeger's life that is probably less important to him."
Spending years being hounded and blacklisted by various incarnations of the radical right, a massive persecution that went so far as to cite him for contempt of congress, Seeger never stopped singing. Seeger was, many would say, "hated by all the right people."
Through all that, over a career that spanned six decades, Seeger stood alone, wound around the very heart of the American soul. Perhaps, because above all else he practiced the redemptive power of community. A man whose very life breath exhorted not just the world, but every single individual in it, to just sing along.
This morning broke clear and brutally cold in Chicago. Grief being that continual search to find flowers in the snow. Sometimes so much so that words stop, one goes mute and there is simply nothing to say. The old hymn asks "How Can I Keep From Singing?" and you answer, "Easy."
But then comes Pete Seeger, and of course you have to sing! How could it be any other way? And then comes an image of those you love most dearly, whether absent or near, they are smiling and laughing, even celebrating the sound of their own voice because they are singing now with Pete. You think, whatever separates you from those you love? Just start singing.
Your community comes alive. Chicago radio steps up masterfully as Lin Brehmer of WXRT writes, "Tom Joad was a character in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. Pete Seeger gave him a voice. R.I.P."
Carl Grapentine, of WFMT, as always, steps up and guides those of us who are both grateful and grieving and seamlessly weaves together Bach and the banjo and even Odetta.
Pete keeps singing. But of course, it's our turn now.
"Pullin' weeds and pickin' stones,
We are made of dreams and bones
Need spot to call my own
Cause the time is close at hand.
Grain for grain, sun and rain
I'll find my way in nature's chain
Tune my body and my brain
To the music of the land."
You remember an old Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee song sang with Pete called "Passing Through."
"I saw Adam leave the garden with an apple in his hand
I said now you're out what are you gonna do
Plant my crops and prey for rain
Maybe raise a little Cain
We've so little time
And we're just passing through."
Then one more time. I am 16 years old. Lining up on the stage of the Auditorium Theater in Chicago with all the real reporters to ask Pete Seeger a question. I get to the head of the line, its my turn, I look up into those wise eyes of kindness. I see the way he rolls up the sleeves of his flannel shirt. And I have no idea what to say.
So I just say, "Thank you!"
To which he brightly replies as if I am the very first and possibly the only person in the whole world to tell him that. "Why, you are quite welcome young man!"
Then he gingerly lays his banjo in its case, snaps it shut, walks down the steps into the now empty theater, bounds up and out into the taxi honking Chicago night, hails a cab, gets in and drives away.
And the sleeves on my flannel shirt have been rolled up ever since.
"Garden Song" written by Dave Mallet. "Passing Through" composed by Dick Blakeslee
Follow Roger Wright on Twitter: www.twitter.com/findingworkorg