It’s late Monday night and I’m staying up by the wood stove trying to catch up on some work. Or at least I was. My plans for the night just changed. A few minutes ago I received a note from my friend Laura saying that Pete Seeger left us about an hour ago. Apparently the news isn’t really public yet, and I’m glad to have a little time to sit with it. What an extraordinary life.
Pete touched my life deeply, as he did so many others, across space and generations. I had one chance to meet him and to perform with him, and spent a bit of time in conversation with him that day as well. I don’t want to claim a closer relationship than I had — that was the only time our paths crossed in person. That one day taught me a great deal, though.
It was September 11, 2011, the tenth anniversary of the attacks. Pete Seeger, David Amram, Spook Handy, Cecilia St. King, Dina Richardson, Marion Loguidice, James Cannings, myself and several other musicians were performing as part of a concert called “Love Wins.” Needless to say, I was honored to be on the bill. The first responders who had acted so heroically that day were not invited to the official celebrations downtown, so this alternative event was organized by Lyndon Harris (of the Gardens of Forgiveness project) and others at NYU to welcome and celebrate them and to encourage healthier responses to those attacks than some our nation had taken.
I was still navigating barricades and New York traffic when Pete showed up for the sound check, but my friend Sarah told me a wonderful story about his arrival when I got there a bit later. When he arrived, the room was set with straight rows of portable chairs, with an aisle down the middle. and he took a look at the room, put his banjo down, and started moving chairs. He didn’t like the rigidity of the straight lines. Pete has always been in the business of creating community, introducing people to each other and to their own capacity to get things done if they work together. He didn’t want straight rows of obedient listeners, he wanted people to see each other as well as him, to embrace and support each other and to sing together.
He was 92 at the time. There were hundreds of chairs. There were volunteers present. And he was… well, Pete Seeger. This is the man who wrote Where Have All The Flowers Gone? He taught us to sing This Land Is Your Land. He introduced Martin Luther King, Jr. to the song We Shall Overcome. It would not have been surprising or rude if he had said “Could you move these chairs before the show?” or even “Could you help me move these chairs?”
He didn’t do either one.
He just started moving chairs. Naturally, people who were there looked at each other and said “Maybe we should help Pete.” Before long, everyone had pitched in and the room was reset. It was more welcoming and spoke more of community than it had before.
Ever the organizer, Pete showed us how it is done: Do the work. Show people what it looks like, then welcome other people into the work when they show up. Gandhi didn’t say “Demand the change.” He said “Be the change.” Pete lived that. From all I can tell, he lived it for nine decades.
I arrived soon after, and when it came time, I played my part of the show. Pete sat down, about three rows back, with hands cupped to his ears on both sides of his head. Another lesson: even if it’s likely that everyone in the room came to hear you, listen closely, with everything you’ve got.
Later, Pete came up to do his set. He invited members of another band that was playing to sit in with him and ‘lined out verses,’ as he is known for doing — teaching people songs in the act of singing them.
He also welcomed several of the musicians who were performing that day up on stage with him and took requests for songs. The band supported him on a kicking version of This Little Light of Mine, and Spook Handy helped keep things rolling along. Pete invited several of us to take a verse, which each of us made up on the spot. Singing a verse of This Little Light of Mine while standing on stage next to Pete and his banjo will remain one of the most memorable moments of my nearly 25 year career.
That’s lesson two from Pete: encourage others to offer their gifts. The world needs all of us to contribute. It’s not an individual competition, it’s a team sport. And we’re all on the same team. After the show, he hung around for a while and I got to spend a bit of time in conversation with him. He’s full of stories, as many who have met him will attest, and always happy to teach you a song if you’ve got the time.
Less than two months ago we lost Nelson Mandela, another giant of the era, and it was interesting hearing the form that many remembrances took. My friend Martin spoke my mind when he noted that so many people were saying things like “We’ll never see his like again.” Taking nothing away from the greatness of either man, that’s a rather silly thing to say. It implies that some people are born with the ‘great’ gene, and the rest of us are destined to be normal. The truth is just the opposite. They earned our respect over decades of courageous decisions—the kinds of decisions that most of us are free to make. Courage isn’t a trait, it’s a choice, and we can work out our courage muscles by making small efforts. Moving a few chairs.
The third deep impression I still have of that day was striking how available he made himself. There was an inherent and well-practiced generosity in his approach to his own time. It was extraordinary to see a person of his stature take the time to hang out as long as people wanted to talk with him. There’s a difference between telling someone they matter and showing them.
There is so much more to say about him, of course, and in the next few days, many people will offer their remembrances as we come to grips with our loss and celebrate this live so well-lived. Pete Seeger gave us a powerful example of how to live a life of integrity and intention, and the question for us now is whether we will simply applaud, or instead, we will try to emulate it, in our own small ways. It seems to me that now that he is gone, the rest of us have a bit more work to do.
Thank you, Pete, for showing us how it’s done.