On Pete Seeger

I don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to have Garth Brooks deliver a ham-fisted butchering of “American Pie” as part of a misguided medley at the concert for Barack Obama at the Lincoln Memorial yesterday, but the event’s planners more than made up for that incredible bit of idiocy by including Pete Seeger in the day’s proceedings.

There’s something about the way Pete Seeger speaks and sings, and about what he says, that always makes me perk up and pay attention. His is a voice of authority, but in the good and decent sense of that word, not the bad political one. Pete Seeger deserved to be on that stage. It wouldn’t have been the same without him. (I’d have prefered he not have to share it with Springsteen, but, hey, why quibble?)

When I was in junior high school, I went to a Methodist Church camp on Shelter Island in Long Island’s Peconic Bay, and one evening our counselors rounded us all up to walk and ferry over to Greenport, where the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater had moored for the evening. Seeger performed in a waterfront park that night, and it was magical.

I found this clip from YouTube to be a good example of Seeger taking something relatively simple and straightforward and making it profound. The video quality is crap, like most things on YouTube, but just listen to his voice: speaking and singing. How can you not listen to him? I also love his weird approach to the guitar: playing his strange 12-string with the triangular sound hole and the capo halfway up the neck, sounding distinctive and clarion clear. A true original. Admirable. Awe-inspiring.

I believe this clip was from The Smothers Brothers Show. though it’s not actively identified as such. (As an aside, both my father and I were told at certain points in our lives that we bore an uncanny resemblance to Tommy Smothers. Fact of the matter is: we did).

Pete Seeger is a hero to me. Right up there with Muhammad Ali and Robert Wyatt. Folks who I never knew personally, but who I celebrate while they live, and will mourn when they depart. They taught me things I needed to know, at a time when no one else seemed to be teaching them. Good folks. My life is better for having listened to them.

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