Sunday, May 3, 2009

Pete Seeger Turns 90

If you have any connection to the folk community, or even if you're just culturally in tune, then you don't need me to tell you that today is the 90th birthday of one of the true giants of American song, Mr. Pete Seeger.

Pete is the true embodiment of the folk spirit. He is the most unpretentious cultural icon in the universe, possibly the most unpretentious person in the universe. Even in the folk world, there are folks who thirst for the spotlight and enjoy the fame that they get. You never get an inkling from Pete that it is about anything but the community. He is not the star. He is merely the bandleader with anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand chorines to enjoin in song. To Pete, the sharing of a song is far more important than the person performing it. Paradoxically, it takes a huge person to be so effortlessly humble. If anyone can make you "get" folk music, Pete can.

I have several friends in the Hudson Valley folk community that know and work with Pete. I only encountered him personally once, at Pete's Clearwater Festival, where some of the aforementioned friends (and Pete, of course) were performing.

Several of us were sitting at a picnic table in the artists' area when Pete saundered over to our table with a bag of chocolate chip cookies and sat himself down. "I'm a cookie-holic. I'll eat all of these if I don't share them." This seemed, if not impossible, then certainly inconsequential, as Pete is astonishingly fit and healthy for a man of his age. (He could pass for 70 with ease.) He opened the bag as he straddled the bench and casually waited for any of us to take him up on his offer.

As a (then) recent convert to veganism, I did not partake of the cookies. But it was difficult to feel like "Holy shit! That's Pete Fucking Seeger!" as one would in a similar situation with another celebrity. (e.g. "Holy shit! That's Elvis Fucking Costello!" or "Holy shit! That's Barack Fucking Obama!") It was just a genial old man sharing some cookies. His warmth and humility were evident. They filled the area without overwhelming it. This is not something Bob Dylan would or could do.

After a few minutes of idle chitchat between Pete and my amigos he went on his way. I don't remember if he left the cookies. But he left his spirit.

Pete Seeger is not a sophisticated composer. He is not a stunning wordsmith. He is not a virtuoso instrumentalist or vocalist. What he is is a man who knows the power of song and how to communicate it, a man who practices what he preaches and retains 100% of his soul. This is extraordinarily rare and beautiful. The world is an undeniably better place for having Pete Seeger in it. In fact, he is one of the few people of whom I can imagine a measurably worse world in his absence.

Happy birthday, Pete. May you have many more. No one, and I do mean no one, deserves them more than you.

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