An American icon hands down his banjo

Marc Black (left) stands with Pete Seeger at Seeger's 93rd birthday party.

Marc Black (left) stands with Pete Seeger at Seeger’s 93rd birthday party.

I stumbled upon a Pete Seeger video on Youtube a couple of years ago and the legendary folk singer instantly became one of my favorite musicians. The video features Seeger in 2010, at the age of 91, at a music festival in Port Jervis, NY performing my favorite song of his, Quite Early Morning, in front of a live crowd.

He’s standing on stage plucking at his banjo, which bears the engraving “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender”. In his old age his voice had faded so he invited the audience to help him with the words:

“You know it’s darkest, before the dawn,

and this thought keeps me, movin’ on.

If we could heed, these early warnings,

the time is now, quite early mornin’.”

As I learned more about the man, he also became one of my favorite social activists as well. Seeger didn’t just influence the careers of countless singers like Bob Dylan, Don McLean, and Bruce Springsteen, he also stood at the forefront of many major social, political, and environmental issues throughout his lifetime which started just a couple of years after WWI ended.

Sadly, Seeger passed away Monday night at a hospital in New York City at the age of 94. He lived a full life, confronting the corruption of the powers that be for almost a century. By all accounts he went peacefully and calmly, a fitting end to a man who inspired so many with his quiet strength and steadfast focus.

After the first chorus, he begins murmuring into the mic while still plucking away, it becomes apparent that he’s forgotten the words. Ever the consummate entertainer, he finds a way to alleviate the awkward tension building in the crowd:

“My brain is going you know (laughter from the audience). They say old age is in your head. You lose your hearing, you lose your memory. You lose your teeth… you lose your memory (more rising laughter). You lose your eyesight… you lose your memory (winks as the audience roars).”

Suddenly the words come back to him and he continues:

“Some say that human kind, won’t long endure,

but what makes them feel, so doggone sure?

I know that you, who hear my singing,

could make those freedom bells go ringing.”

On Monday afternoon I contacted a friend of mine, Cris Johnson of Old Orchard Beach, and spoke with him about Seeger’s legacy. In the early 1970’s Johnson was working as a humanities teacher in Irvington, NY. At the time the Hudson River was a nasty mess of pollution and Irvington sits right on it’s banks.

Seeger was fronting an effort to clean up the river. He had raised enough money through benefit concerts to build a boat, which was constructed in Bristol, ME, then sail her down the coast and up into the heart of the Hudson River Valley, which is where he was from.

The idea (which turned out to be very successful) was to fill the 106 foot sloop with musicians and sail it around to towns on the river playing music, raising money, and creating awareness for the cleanup effort. Cris Johnson remembers when they came to Irvington and tied up at the town pier, “a bunch of activists had gathered by the riverfront to greet the musicians so I brought a bunch of my students down. Pete was going around playing his banjo and asking people to stuff money into it, so I threw five bucks in and leaned in close to thank him for his efforts. Then he looked me right in the eye and said ‘friend, I’m just the singer, all of you guys are the band.'”

Now he’s picking up his steam, he’s got the audience singing along as he enters the third verse:

“And so we keep on, while we live,

until we have no, no more to give.

And when these fingers, can strum no longer,

hand the ole’ banjo, to young ones stronger.”

Marc Black (far right) performs with Pete Seeger (far left) at a fundraiser for The Folk Music Hall of Fame in the fall of 2013.

Marc Black (far right) performs with Pete Seeger (far left) at a fundraiser for The Folk Music Hall of Fame in the fall of 2013.

After speaking with Cris, he referred me to an old college buddy of his from Colgate University in Hamilton, NY named Marc Black. Marc, who lives in Katonah, NY, is himself a very well recognized folk singer and activist and was personal friends with Seeger for many years.

Marc remembers meeting Seeger back in the early days of the Iraq War in the 1990’s, “I attended an anti-war rally in Fishkill, NY. Pete brought a truck load of giant peace flags so we set them up across the street from some pro-war folks. It was a confrontational move, and we were standing there in a sort of awkward staring contest as people drove by honking. Pete began coaxing us to start singing, he egged us on until we were all singing our hearts out. We were all taking turns starting songs, so I started singing one that I had written called, “American Children”. When we were done Pete asked who had written the tune, so I told him I had. He looked right at me and said, ‘that’s a beauty.’ I’ve never been more flattered about my songwriting in my entire life.”

He goes into a solo on his banjo, he looks so at ease strumming away, drifting through the melodies reverberating from his old fingertips. He looks up and takes a deep breath:

“So though it’s darkest, before the dawn,

this thought keeps me, movin’ on,

through all this world, of joy and sorrow,

we still can have, singing tomorrows.”

Nearing the end of our conversation, Marc recalled the last time he spent with Seeger, “I sang with him a few months ago at the Folk Music Hall of Fame in Newburgh, NY. We sang “Where have all the Flowers Gone” and “Turn, Turn, Turn”. It was so interesting how, as he grew old and his voice wavered quite a bit, it was the quiet in his voice that resounded with power. His physical skills were diminishing, he was moving his keys down from C to A, and asking the audience to hear the songs from within. As we sang he kept forgetting verses and asking the audience to sing to him. It was so touching. So deep. He was frustrated with himself, but he made light of it and joked with the audience saying ‘this is so ridiculous, not only have I been singing this song for over thirty years but I just sang it perfectly downstairs five minutes ago!’ That touched something inside the audience in a different way than they were used to. Pete had been such a lion for so long, it was easy to tell that his life force was draining. We could all feel how precious his remaining time was. I think he understood it too, but he seemed at peace knowing that in his absence, new, younger, stronger folks would pick up the slack and continue the never ending fight for justice.”

 At this point in the performance, the entire audience is singing along as Seeger approaches the end of his song:

“Through all this world, of joy and sorrow,

we still can have, singing tomorrows.”

Then, right as he appears to be fading, he perks up and implores the crowd, “one more time!”

The audience sings so loud that he becomes an equal part of the chorus, symbolically giving everyone a voice with his message:

“Through all this world, of joy and sorrow,

we still can have, singing tomorrows.”

 Then he drifted off, smiling to great applause…

Chris Shorr

About Chris Shorr

Chris is a sixth generation Portlander who loves all things Maine. He has worked with mentally ill and marginalized adults at a Portland non-profit, on a lobster boat in Casco Bay, at several high-end Portland restaurants, and at a local meat packing plant. He also ran for Portland City Council in 2013, wrote a weekly column in the now defunct Portland Daily Sun, and currently writes a weekly column in The Portland Phoenix.