The Voice in My Head

Photo 15 of 24

Pete Seeger and Tao Seeger-Rodriguez, at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake

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.

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Pete Seeger and Tao Seeger-Rodriguez, at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake

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* Pete did not write all of the songs we associate him with. But that doesn’t make them any less his songs.

 

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20 thoughts on “The Voice in My Head

  1. A lovely tribute and I can’t think of a finer voice to hear in your head and to be the soundtrack of your life. I hope I grow old as gracefully and as fully as Pete did.

    • Isn’t it a fine shrine? I bought that autographed card on eBay a long time ago–at the time I wondered if I was crazy but now I’m so happy to have it.

    • I don’t know how anyone would doubt the power of music, especially if they’ve seen those old clips from the Civil Rights movement–its a perfect example!

  2. This is a wonderful and touching eulogy to a man who influenced modern music perhaps more than he is given credit for. I too grew up listening to him – and then was surprised a few years ago to discover that not only was he still alive, but also still singing and performing. I saw him perform on a recording of Farm Aid just days before I heard he had passed. I had just rediscovered him and he was gone. Your writing made me aware of how often it is the songs of Pete Seeger that sing in my head as I go through my day – I am much given to having a song for any moment, every event 🙂 Little Boxes is also one of my favourites and it pops up constantly with the McMansions!!

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings about this great man – I enjoyed getting to know a little more about you. 🙂

    • I suspect a lot of folks would be surprised if they knew just how many of these familiar songs could be connected to Pete in one way or another. I, too, have music in my head all the time–folk music is particularly useful for providing just the right sentiment for every moment of my day!

  3. What a beautifully expressed and poignant tribute to a great singer-songwriter and some one whose words and music influenced your life.I of course remember most of the songs and went on line last night to hear some of them again and was struck by how deeply the lyrics and sounds affected me, especially “We shall overcome”.
    I love the idea of you singing to Flower, it’s just so nice.
    I am glad that you are keeping his music alive and am so sorry that you have had to say goodbye.

  4. Ah, but so good that he moved you in the way he did and his voice remains in your head. He is what I consider “good people” with such a strong message over so many years, staying so focused and true to his beliefs that inspired us to care and do better.

    • I guess it’s partly his persistence and his seemingly unyielding optimism that speak to me. To continue to believe in his ability to make a difference–pretty impressive!

    • True–we should all hope to make the kind of mark Pete Seeger did! Apparently he was out chopping wood 10 days before his death (at 94). Definitely a full life!

  5. Beautifully written tribute that wonderfully conveys the essence of Pete Seeger and his music. It is wonderful how artists can continue to live on through their music.

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