Forty years ago, when I was a little kid, my parents took me and my sisters and a friend or two up on Mt. Tamalpais (in the Bay Area) to see a music show in the outdoor theater. The show had many acts, but I’ve forgotten all of them except for one, a tall guy with a banjo who had a way of throwing his head back to let his voice soar out. He sang "If I Had a Hammer," and "Turn, Turn, Turn" and a few others, and then with his mates took a break.
Completely entranced, I became an instant Pete Seeger fan. The outdoor theater on Mt. Tam has no backstage. A friend and I found Seeger and a pal quietly eating lunch in the brush away from the crowd. I asked him, of course, for his autograph. He gave me a wry look and said "Okay–but only if you promise not to tell anyone." I promised and, in fact, burned with the secret all through the rest of the show.
It’s a small story, but so characteristic of the gentle big-heartedness of this man that I just have to share it, and post on Pete Seeger, still one of my heroes, who has once again attracted the spotlight. Mostly that’s due to the great Bruce Springsteen, who is on tour behind a new album of Seeger songs and folk classics, including Seeger’s newly-minted "Bring ‘Em Home." (Which you can hear for free.)
But Bruce would be the first to deflect the spotlight back to Seeger, who for his work with the Clearwater sloop to save the Hudson River is in the Ecology Hall of Fame, who was interviewed wonderfully on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!, and who was profiled spectacularly well by the New Yorker a couple of months ago. The New Yorker story is so good I want you to read it whole, but I will cherry-pick one anecdote, from Seeger’s boyhood days:
The librarian in Nyack gave Seeger novels by Ernest Thompson Seton, who helped start the Boy Scouts. "Camping and woodcraft," Seeger said. "The first one I really liked was called "Rolf in the Woods.’ Rolf was fifteen years old in 1810. He was being beaten by his uncle, and his mother dies. He runs away and finds in the woods a wigwam with an old Indian living in it, trapping animals and exchanging their skins at the hardware store for tools and nails. The boy asks if he can stay with him, and the Indian points to a corner, and the boy falls asleep. The uncle comes along later and says, "I see you’re with the Indian, I’ll go get my gun," so Rolf and the Indian run off together, and they end up in the Adirondacks. Anyway, you can see how it goes."
This is so Seeger; a fascination with the past; a sensitivity to the poor and helpless and excluded; a curiosity about how things might be completely different from the way they are. And, let me add, this unhappy-boy-finds-peace-in-the-wilderness is a theme that comes up again and again in stories about famous nature-lovers.
David Brower, for example, growing up in Berkeley, became interested in the woods after losing two front teeth in an accident. Because his family was poor, his father couldn’t afford to cap the teeth, and Brower was teased unmercifully. He went off into the woods of Tilden Park in Berkeley (if memory serves) and liked it so much he never fully returned to what we like to call civilization.
Seeger as an older man lived along the Hudson in a log cabin and sailed up and down it for decades in a sailing ship called the Clearwater, doing shows to raise money to help clean up the river. But simplicity and caring is a huge part of his appeal:
"I like to say I’m more conservative than Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other."
On July 4th, let me say that the greatness of this country is not in its imperial ambitious; its insane technology; its insecurity or its vast wealth. The greatness of this country is in the hearts of its people. No one in this land has more heart, or has touched more hearts, than Pete Seeger.