We were out of town last week when I got word that Pete Seeger had died. At 94, this should not have come as a great shock, but it did anyway, because two months earlier he’d been leading all of us at Carnegie Hall in song. As he always did.
I’ve been singing along with Pete since at least the early 1980′s when my brother purchased the double album “Precious Friends”, which is a live recording of one of Pete and Arlo (Guthrie)’s concerts – I believe at the Hollywood Bowl – in 1980. And even before that, I knew The Hammer Song and Wimoweh and Where Have All the Flowers Gone. So I guess you could say I’ve been singing along with Pete pretty much my entire life.
And of course, I am not alone.
The genius and lasting legacy of Pete Seeger, far beyond his politics and his protests, is his unending, enthusiastic ability to get us all singing along, even if we couldn’t sing. As Arlo has said on more than one occasion, “Pete taught me that you don’t even need to know the melody! You just sort of slide around until the note feels right.” With a smile and a story and a lot of encouragement, he created choirs wherever he went.
In recent years, Arlo talks a lot about how much he enjoys it when families sing together, and says that over the years, the audiences at his concerts have become a kind of extended family. He said that one of the things he learned from Pete is that when people sing together, barriers come crashing down.
If you never had the opportunity to be at a concert with Arlo & Pete, let me try to give you a taste of what it was like at Carnegie Hall, each year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
The hall begins to fill up at 7:30 with possibly one of the most diverse crowds you’ll ever see at a concert at Carnegie. There is always at least one box filled with Orthodox Jews, and dotted throughout the crowd are gray haired hippies in tie dye and headbands. Families bring their children and now and then other performers (like Judy Collins) can be seen in the audience, singing along with everyone else. Then there are the people who come from all over the world. Last year a Swedish couple sat in the box with me and Maya, and the man told us they’d planned their entire trip around this concert. He smiled and said “I am here for Pete!”
Pete, Arlo and Arlo’s family take the stage at 8pm without any sort of introduction. They simply walk out as the crowd cheers. But the cheers are not like those you might hear at, say, a Maroon 5 concert. The vibe is more along the lines of “Wow it is so good to see you all again! We are so happy you’re here.” The lights go down, instruments are picked up and tuned, and the singing begins. Usually the first song is one that everybody knows. Last Fall it was “Midnight Special” followed by “Wabash Cannonball”. Between songs, stories and jokes are told. Often they are stories we’ve all heard before, but they are favorites and they never get old. Pete plays his banjo and at some point leads the crowd in The Hammer Song, or Jacob’s Ladder, or Kisses Sweeter than Wine, or whatever strikes his fancy at the moment.
The time flies by, and all too soon two + hours have passed and it is time to say good-bye, till next year…
It’s hard to imagine that stage without Pete on it, but his spirit and songs will be there, and we’ll all be singing along.