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Pete Seeger and me

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Uncertain times call for sing-able songs.

Pete Seeger, the iconic troubadour who passed away in 2014, might have said that, had he lived to see the discord in our country today. Seeger, who would have turned 100 in May, wouldn’t have been discouraged by the attacks on labor and civil rights, the environment and immigrants. He would have tuned his banjo, standing tall with his chin jutting out in defiance, and he would begin singing. He understood the power of a crowd singing the same song. If you’ve ever been engaged in singing like this, you know the meaning of a movement.

The songs that he wrote or popularized are legion: “If I had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” “She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” among countless others.

I had the good fortune to meet Seeger twice. The first time was at a college-club outing event in February 1974 at Surprise Lake Camp in Cold Spring, NY. After an exhilarating day of cross-country skiing, hiking, skating and snow shoeing, we were sitting in the warm dining hall, strumming guitars and singing folk standards. Seeger walked in but left the room quickly—only to return, banjo in hand, to join our circle. Seeger encouraged each of us to sing a song, tell a story and share our talents. He brought out the best in us.

In 1968, the keel was laid for the Sloop Clearwater—what could perhaps be Pete’s greatest legacy. Seeger saw the dismal state of the New York’s Hudson River and dreamt of a visible symbol and performance stage that could bring people back to the river and motivate them to fight to clean it up. The sloop worked its magic to awaken activism from New York to Albany, all the river cities and hamlets in between. As a graduate student in NYC on the banks of that dirty stream, I joined the Clearwater crusade, attracted by its positive message of environmental renewal and inspired by Seeger’s enthusiastic example.

The Clearwater organization launched a two-day music and activism festival in July 1979 in Croton-on-Hudson, NY. Hitchhiking for an early morning shift, a four-wheel-drive vehicle pulled to the roadside. I hopped in the back and noticed Seeger in the front passenger seat. His wife Toshi was driving; those of us involved in Clearwater credited Toshi as the organizing force behind Pete’s and the movement’s success. She was almost as recognizable as Seeger, with her flowing gray hair and incisive comments at just the right juncture. Their curiosity about me was flattering and perplexing. Seeger wanted to know what I did, how I came to be involved in the festival and what I thought about the weather. He was humble and human, but had a visible fire burning within him. We didn’t sing in the car that morning, but I witnessed Seeger bringing the crowd to its feet later in the day. I also noticed him wandering the festival grounds, chatting up anyone who caught his eye. He encouraged everyone to raise their voices together, knowing organically how even small human connections can lead to greater outcomes, to inspiration, to movements, to change.

In the intervening years, my family has both volunteered at the festival and have been paying customers. I met my wife through the New York City Friends of Clearwater chapter. Our daughters sing with the crowd and have done volunteer shifts too.

Seeger has been gone since 2014 and his guiding hand and voice are sorely missed. There are new voices, though, to tune up banjos, guitars and mandolins to keep the spirit alive. We return to the shores of the Hudson River each year to belt out songs of resistance, with the Clearwater riding the tide, raising hope that in these turbulent times we can again build a movement with the power of song.

Charles Rubin is a computer systems engineer employed by a major media company in New York City. He spends his summers in Lake Huntington, NY and the rest of the year in Hoboken, NJ.

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