Recently I said farewell to someone who has inspired me since the beginning of my memory. This month I share Pete Seeger’s song “To My Old Brown Earth”, and a few thoughts about this man whom I will deeply miss.
Pete Seeger 1919-2014
Not too much to report in the “News Department”. I bought some pretty good recording equipment last month, and now that the grand kids have moved out of the house I took back a spare bedroom to set up a home recording studio. It has been fun to record some test tracks as I prototype my next CD. But no matter how much I spend on microphones and various other audio accessories, I still don’t sound like James Taylor. Borrowing from the words of Bill Morrissey, “I have to work with what I got.”
I am looking forward to taking a little break from New England weather later this month as I share some time with Margo and the extended family in Florida. Hopefully the Polar Vortex won’t follow us down there.
This Month’s Music
To My Old Brown Earth
By Pete Seeger (1958), © 1964 Storm King Music
Lyrics in the comments section below.
This video was recorded at Amazing Things Arts Center a few days following Pete Seeger’s death. All over the world, folks continue to pay tribute by gathering to sing songs he composed or made famous. Pete wrote this one in 1958 when he was a young man. It seems a strange lyric for someone with so much life ahead of him, but Pete seemed to understand that we all have a temporary role in this “human chain”.
I spoke with Pete Seeger on a small handful of occasions and only briefly. Most of my acquaintance is from his recordings, writings, and stage appearances; and yet I am compelled to refer to him familiarly as Pete – as if we were old and personal friends. I can’t imagine him accepting the moniker “Mr. Seeger”, or even “Peter”. To everyone he was just plain “Pete”.
He was born in 1919, almost exactly one year before my father was born. Both of them were of the World War II generation and yet many miles apart in so many ways. My first memories of Pete are from his old Folkways records. These were mostly songs to entertain and teach children. I think the very first song I ever played on an instrument (my ukulele) was “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” (“American Folk Songs for Children”, 1954 Folkways).
I grew up with Pete at my side – like a kind of imaginary father who seemed to speak to me in language that resonated with every stage of my life. As a romantic pre-teen I imagined what adult love would be like and was convinced I would live it as Pete and The Weavers sang in Kisses Sweeter than Wine. (Actually, that song does seem to be a good summary of the way things are turning out.) In my late teens (1967), Pete gave a voice to my outrage about the Viet Nam war when he sang Waste Deep in the Big Muddy in his famous appearance on The Smothers’ Brothers Show. Forty years later it was Pete’s invisible hand that guided me as I wrote Talking Post-Trauma Blues in the style of Pete’s Talking Union. I was thrilled to read in a Wikipedia article about the Talking Blues musical form that both Pete’s and my song were listed as “notable examples”, in addition to Woody Guthrie’s Talking Dust Bowl.
When I left home for Cambridge, MA to attend college I loved to spend Sundays on the green near the river because there were great free concerts – mostly rock music. On one of those afternoons it was Pete Seeger on stage with a huge green “Ecology” banner behind him. It was the very first time I saw Pete live. He sang and played his banjo solo to thousands of us (mostly hippy students). He spoke about how we must care for the Earth, and then he sang and taught us songs that still jump from my own banjo from time to time. It was a masterful performance. I was fascinated that a single person could hold the attention of so many with just a modest folk instrument and his voice. Much later I learned that Pete was living his message as that was the year he commissioned the building of the Sloop Clearwater, which is the centerpiece of Pete’s project to clean up the Hudson River.
When I became a school teacher, sometimes I felt that it was Pete speaking to my students through me and my banjo. And now as an older man, I still hold Pete as a wonderful example of how one can live a good life from start to finish.
I know that there have been times when Pete was on the “wrong side” of history. In the words of noted folksinger John McCutcheon, “Pete was powerful but hardly perfect. He clung to the [Communist] party line about Hitler far too long before World War II and on Stalin far too long afterward. He was a champion of human rights with a blind spot (as does much of the American Left) concerning Cuba. But he faced his mistakes in ways that traced the thinking, evolution, and change that ordinary people inevitably struggle with and that celebrities seldom voice. Even in his missteps he sought to teach. Progress, not perfection, was his muse.”
According to Pete’s grandson Kitama Cahill-Jackson, Pete had been chopping wood just ten days prior to his death, and performing in shows a few weeks earlier. Here is a little glimpse of Pete from July of 2010 when friends David Mallett and Mike Burd showed up for an informal visit. (Thanks to Mike for permission to share this with you – see below.) I love Pete’s little story about the Scottish Rhyme. I am sure that his grandchildren felt that tickle under their chins, and now my grandchildren will too.
Pete Seeger with David Mallett and Mike Burd
When I heard that Pete’s family would allow the public to pay their final respects at the modest funeral parlor near his home, I tossed my banjo into the back seat and drove four hours to Beacon, NY. Like others, I was moved to share a song. I chose “To My Old Brown Earth”. Afterward I learned that this was the last song that Pete heard (sung by Pat Humphries in his hospital room). One of the local TV news outlets was there and caught some of the feeling of that day – including a brief interview with me (below).
In so many ways and throughout my life, Pete has been an example, a mentor, and an inspiration. It is hard to imagine a world without him. As Mark D. Moss, Executive Director of Sing Out! magazine wrote, “Pete, empowered by his special humanity and genius, had, early on, happened upon a few basic truths: Change comes from community. We are all stronger together than apart. And voices raised together in song can inspire and teach.”
Fortunately, Pete has taught us how to pick up that which he has laid down.
“Sing on! is the hope of the last folksinger.” – TS
(If so inclined, I invite you to leave a comment by scrolling to the end of this page.)
Sunday, Mar. 2, 2014: Concord, MA
The Chanticleers share some Irish music as we approach Saint Patrick’s Day. I am joined by Kate Chadbourne, Oen Kennedy, Pat Kenneally, Robert Phillips and Linda Abrams.
Saturday, Mar. 15, 2014: Watertown, MA
I will be sitting in with many from the Folk Song Society of Greater Boston in a tribute to Pete Seeger. 2:00- 5:00 pm. Free admission.
Saturday, Mar. 15, 2014: Providence, RI
Songwriters in the Round. I am joining Steve Allain, Craig Sonnenfeld and Lizzie Davis for an evening of shared music.
Friday, April 4, 2014: Framingham, MA
Opening for Cosy Sheridan at the Uncommon Coffeehouse. Cosy is a great songwriter and performer. This is a great honor to share the stage with her.
Click to view details for all upcoming shows.
Featured Non-profit: Sloop Clearwater
“For over 45 years, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. has been at the forefront of the environmental movement as champion of the Hudson River, working to pass landmark legislation like the Clean Water Act, and providing innovative educational programs, environmental advocacy, and musical celebrations, including the renowned annual Clearwater Festival, to inspire, educate, and activate millions of people.
Today, Clearwater is carrying forward Pete Seeger’s legacy, partnering with schools and community leaders to raise the bar of environmental education, realizing that this time the health of the Hudson River must go hand in hand with creating a sustainable world of green jobs in a green economy. Clearwater’s unique approach to public outreach has made the sloop Clearwater a symbol of grassroots action through hands-on learning, music and celebration.”
Please join me in supporting the important work of Sloop Clearwater.