Friday, January 31, 2014
Down by the Riverside
I was fourteen years old when I heard this song and sang it for the first time.
I was a freshman in high school in northern Colorado. There was a protest in Cheyenne, Wyoming, against the MX missiles that Ronald Reagan wanted to deploy as "protection" against the Soviet Union.
I saw a sign somewhere about the protest, and something in me clicked. I had to go. Religious people talk about being called, and for the first time, I felt like I was being called to do something. I had to go to this protest. I needed to.
I didn't own a car, so I hitchhiked up north to Wyoming. (My dad knew, and he was good with it. My brother was hitchhiking around the country - how bad could it be hitchhiking fifty miles north?) And I found my people. We drove together to one of the missile silos that dotted the prairie in Wyoming. We were a small group, and there were a lot of people in their forties and fifties. At fourteen, I was the youngest person there, but I was welcomed.
And we sang. And we talked about the insanity of waging war for the sake of peace. And we sang some more. Because that's what people do when they're together. They sing. We raise our voices together and find our harmony and find our common bond.
I have never forgotten that day. Standing, hand in hand, surrounding a nuclear missile silo with love and song and our wishes for peace. It made me who I am, that moment. And Pete Seeger's songs were there.
Jim Hightower, who knew Pete Seeger for over forty years, said it best. "It never occurred to me that Pete Seeger could die, for I thought of him as a permanent piece of America--like the Bill of Rights."
This was a man who met with Occupy Wall Street protestors, and who stood up to Joe McCarthy's red baiting. He sang songs of protest for over seventy years. He wasn't especially rich, didn't have an entourage, didn't cause earthquakes of damage and destruction behind him. He was a man with a banjo, who brought people together with song. And he did it again, and again, and again.
He wrote "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
He wrote "Turn, Turn, Turn." (Well, he adapted it from Ecclesiastes, but he did that. And what a profound thing to do, to turn a chapter of the Bible into one of the finest peace songs on the planet.)
He wrote "If I Had a Hammer." Doesn't that seem like a song that has always existed? But someone had to bring that metaphor into life, and Pete Seeger did it.
He wrote "Little Boxes." If you've ever seen an episode of "Weeds," you know that song. It's one of my dad's favorite songs.
He helped to adapt old spirituals into the song "We Shall Overcome." He's given songwriting credit for it, but he refused to accept royalties for the song. Instead, all of the royalties go to a center in Tennessee that trains the leaders of tomorrow.
He lived his life and his ideals out loud, for the world to see. He was not a perfect man, as none of us are. But goddamn if he wasn't a man worth admiring. I loved Pete Seeger and admired him and cried for him when he died. For my loss, and the world's loss.
The best thing we can all do to honor Pete Seeger is to lift our voices together. He spent his life fighting for a world of peace, a world of harmony and love and care for each other. Let us all recommit ourselves to bringing Pete Seeger's vision into reality.