I hear voices. More precisely, I hear one voice. It’s the benevolent and stirring voice of an old man who died a few months ago.
Do you think that’s weird?
If you knew me better, it would make perfect sense.
The voice I hear is that of American folksinger, Pete Seeger, and it’s always singing.
I have been hearing, and being inspired by, Pete’s voice since I was a teenager and it has been a sort of soundtrack of my life, in ways large and small. Listening to recordings of him singing with The Weavers introduced me to folk and topical music, and completely changed my musical tastes forever. His version of “We Shall Overcome” made me want to write a doctoral dissertation and a book about the music of the civil rights movement, thus shaping my academic career.
When I drive along the Hudson River to visit my sister, I hear the voice sing “sailing down my golden stream.” When I get a big sloppy kiss from my husband, the voice whispers “kisses sweeter than wine.” When I see McMansions lined up along the road, the voice sardonically comments on “little boxes made of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same.” *
There are guys replacing a floor in our house right now and all that I can think is, “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning.” I work every day on a quilt that is covered with words I learned from Pete. Hell, when I go looking for my little black cat, Flower, I sing along with Pete—“Where has little Flower gone?”
It’s not just his voice. When I was a young woman, I bought a banjo and decorated the head because Pete had a banjo and decorated his. We have what amounts to a small shrine to Pete in our house.
You have your heroes, I have mine.
I wanted to write something when Pete died in January but the time was not right. I was away from home, caught up in a vacation with friends and dolphins. I couldn’t focus and I couldn’t pull my thoughts together.
I felt like Pete’s voice had gone silent and I simply couldn’t find words to say how that made me feel. The soundtrack of my life . . . gone? Would this be, for me, the day the music died?
As I’ve had some time to process the death of this hero of mine, I’ve seen clearly that Pete’s voice will never go silent; his music will never die. He spent his life doing what he could to teach America to sing and to care enough to raise a voice. In so doing, he ensured his continued presence and influence.
He taught so many of us so much.
He taught us that it is more fun to sing along than to sing alone.
He taught us that words, and music, have consequences.
He taught us, and showed us with his actions, that individuals matter and can make a difference, whether it’s in the realm of civil rights, war protest, or cleaning up a dirty river.
He also taught us to carry it on. As he grew older, he didn’t stop singing. He didn’t rest on his considerable laurels.
He found ways to carry it on. He brought in younger singers, like Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo, and his own grandson, Tao Rodríguez-Seeger, to sing with him. He acknowledged, and seemed to embrace, his declining abilities and used it as an opportunity to counsel us others to do the same:
And when these fingers can strum no longer,
Hand the old banjo to a young one stronger.
But he never fully handed over the banjo to the young ones stronger. He kept singing. He sang in 2008, at President Obama’s inauguration. In 2011, at 92 years old, he led the Pete Seeger March, which walked in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. Four months before his death, he performed for Farm Aid.
I took a walk yesterday and, as I often do, I listened to Pete on my iPod. It made me sad but it made me happy. All this wonderful music, carrying on. Then came the song that, to me, sums up Pete’s approach to life. It’s from the tribute album, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” The album concludes with Pete singing, in his quavery old-man voice, a flickering shadow of the rich tenor of his youth. He sings:
Yes I’m still searching,
For a way we all can learn,
To build a world where we all can share
The work, the fun, the food, the space,
the joy, the pain . . .
That’s the voice in my head. The soundtrack of my life. It’s Pete Seeger voice, young and vibrant, and hopeful. Old and thin, and still hopeful. The voice in my head gives me hope. Thanks, Pete. You’re my hero; may you always be the voice I hear.
* Pete did not write all of the songs we associate him with. But that doesn’t make them any less his songs.