An Afternoon with Pete Seeger
Listen; I saw the Allman Brothers Band in 1971, at the Fillmore East, with Duane Allman. Twice. I was at Madison Square Garden in December 1975 for Dylan’s Night of the Hurricane. I remember seeing the Ramones at CBGB in ‘76, Talking Heads, too. It was there also that Television played into the wee hours. After seeing Patti Smith at CBGB and the St. Marks Church, I saw her all ragtag and triumphant at the Bottom Line right as Horses was being played on what seemed like every stereo in NYC right after Christmas ’75. My roommate and I had only to beat it across Washington Square Park to see the Rolling Stones turn a routine press conference into a free concert, rolling up at the corner Fifth and Eighth on a flatbed truck and playing ‘Brown Sugar’ to a crowd of maybe 200. I was at the Palladium for the 1979 Clash show where Paul Simonon was caught on camera smashing his bass into the stage, a picture that became the cover of London Calling. I was at the opening of SFJazz where every luminary of 21st Century Jazz was onstage.
Hell, I’ve seen Miles, Ornette, Ladysmith, Elvis (Costello), Reed, Jackie McLean, Sarah Vaughan, The Band, The Dead, Clapton, Beefheart, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Lucinda, Blondie (also at CBGB), Hell and the Voidoids, the Dead Boys, Graham Parker, Blood Ulmer, Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, Neil Young, Johnny Winter, Bill Frisell, Esperanza Spaulding, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Randy Newman, Paul Simon and on and on.
So I don’t especially want to hear about how fan-fuckin-tastic Hall & Oates were when you saw them in Vegas in ’85. Especially if the only other live music you’ve ever seen are Kenny Loggins and the Doobie Brothers. Oh, and that time you saw Jimmy Buffett after a Cards game or Chicago at some corporate party your old girlfriend got invited to by mistake.
I think I can speak with some authority when I say the best live show I ever saw was free, in the band shell in Central Park, on a sunny Sunday in June of 1972.
We were all going in to see him, my friends and I, so we hopped on a bus across the bridge, took the A-Train down to 59th Street and made our way into the park. We were some pretty jaded eighteen-year-olds, wearing combat boots and jeans and very long hair. We drank sweet wine, smoked Marlboros and the cheap Jersey pot made up of equal parts catnip, hedge trimmings and the leftovers from when some kid’s mother out in Totowa figured out what he was growing on his windowsill and made him throw it away. We were into the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane and Dylan and all that. We had graduated from high school just a couple of days before.
The Vietnam War ground on and on, a dull stalemate 8000 miles away, chewing up kids our age at the rate of hundreds per week. It was an ongoing national nightmare, a madness that gripped everyone one way or another. There seemed to be no way to stop it. We’d been the ‘political kids,’ working to end the nightmare. We called ourselves revolutionaries and took the term seriously, but as time went on the rallies and marches had become increasingly more joyless and demoralized. Nixon had achieved a stalemate with the Movement as well; the war would end when it became politically expedient for him to end it and not a moment sooner.
As usual, there was a girl involved; ostensibly just another member of our little group but one I wanted to winnow from the herd as it were. She had chocolate eyes and a pixie haircut. It seemed impossible that a banjo-playing old man (53 years old!) who had once been in the Weavers, a group her parents listened to, would appeal to either of us. But she said she was going so I went.
Our friends commandeered a row of folding chairs near the front of the stage. I maneuvered not-so-subtly to sit next to her and began a series of jokes and dumb stories designed to impress her or, failing that, make her laugh. I was making good progress and hardly noticed when Pete Seeger hit the stage. It was just him and his banjo and a microphone; no Marshall amps, no drums or bass. The girl waved me quiet.
Seeger was tall and skinny, gaunt with a gray beard and a work shirt. He took us on an unhurried tour through his repertoire; “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” which most us remembered him singing on the Smothers Brothers Show in defiance of CBS’s censors; “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” which they’d taught us in the third grade. He swung into “So Long It’s Been Good to Know Ya,” Oh, right, I thought, he knew Woody Guthrie; and “Goodnight Irene,” and Leadbelly and Cisco Houston and all those guys, too. I knew he still hung around with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Dylan and all those other Village guys; he knew these songs not from their records, like the rest of us, but because their composers had taught them to him personally.
He sang joyfully with his head thrown back, the sun in his face, as if serenading the sky. He sang about the war, the grape boycott, apartheid, civil rights, Nixon, feminism, and the Chicago 7. He had a song for each and many more. One by one we fell under his spell—his relentless enthusiasm, his iron optimism, his sturdy conviction that what he was doing was right, both musically and politically. And what reason would he possibly have to doubt himself when he could command an audience with just his songs and his voice; convince all of us that the glory of his stories, his songs, his causes were about the glory of us all?
Normally I was way too cool for anything as corny as a sing-along, especially in front of a girl I was trying, however lamely, to impress. But I went along with it when Seeger led us through “We Shall Overcome.” It reminded me of singing hymns back when I still went to church. We helped him out with ‘Guantanamera,” too, after a word or two from him about Jose Marti’s lyrics of the Cuban Revolution.
Next he introduced a Zulu song protesting the European colonization of Africa, which sounded pretty hip to us. It wasn’t any kind of stretch to go from the Zulu and their European colonizers to the Vietnamese people and their American invaders. The folding chairs we were sitting had an aisle that divided us exactly in half. The left half, Seeger told us, where my friends and I were all sitting, were to take the bass part and just keep repeating “Hey yup ho!” over and over again.
“And when I point this way” he said, pointing at the right side of the crowd, “you sing “The Wimoweh, the Wimoweh, the Wimoweh.”
He got us started, directing the left and then right and then left again, like a conductor in front of an orchestra, getting the timing and the beat just right, turning us summarily into an intricately-arranged rhythm section. Once he had us going to his satisfaction he threw his head back again and began singing out the lyrics, loud and clear, over our heads. His tenor was strong enough to be heard over the roar of the several hundred of us accompanying him.
“In the jungle, the mighty jungle. the lion sleeps tonight…
He sang the lyrics in English and then in some African language. Undoubtedly Zulu. At some point he left the words behind; the words became mere sounds, sounds that came from his chest, his throat, his lips and his heart. They were wordless cries of freedom and longing and victory that echoed off the band shell and the trees ringing it—echoed all over the park. I imagined them resounding off all the buildings that towered over the edges of the park; off the Plaza Hotel to the south, off the Guggenheim and the Met to the east, off The Dakota and the Museum of Natural History to the west and off the tenements on 110th St, Harlem, forty blocks to the north. His voice rang with a gentle sureness, and as we sang our parts the music became tighter, as if arising from us organically—we no longer had to think about it, we were making music together. And the music was joyful and so powerful I felt my hair was standing on end. I was singing and weeping and grinning all at the same time. I looked at the pixie-haired girl and the same thing was happening to her, tears running down her face, her chin quivering. I looked around it seemed to be happening to everybody. We were all weeping and grinning there under the warm spring sun and digging every minute of it. And for that moment we all believed with all our hearts that we could end the war—hell, all wars—and free the Zulu and end racism, and unionize the farm workers, liberate all political prisoners, and eliminate injustice. We were going to change the world from right there in the park. We were going to change the world with music. We just knew it.
Afterwards, still breathless and high on two hours of music and the crummy pot we’d smoked, we wandered over into the West Eighties. One of the kids said he knew where our beloved former English teacher lived. She had, after all, told us to ‘drop by anytime’ and we wandered around vaguely looking for her building. Our teacher had been vocally against the war and had helped us organize events and teach-ins and student strikes at school and often came up against the administration for teaching books that were off the curriculum and letting us, for credit, read and write pretty much anything we felt like. She wasn’t much older than we were, maybe twenty-five, and, like us, was always in trouble. She had left her position at the end of the year. Rumor had it she’d been asked to leave.
No one was sure if it was 22 W. 84th or 44 W. 82nd or maybe 68 W. 86th. We banged on a lot of doors and established beyond doubt that people in the high rent district were either not at home on Sunday afternoons, or didn’t make it a practice to answer their doors. Finally, at one particularly immense oaken door, and just as everyone was starting to grumble at the futility of the entire exercise, we hit pay dirt.
The maid answered our pounding. We gave her our teacher’s name and she answered ‘yes,’ in a clichéd accent: our teacher did live there. A man came to the door who seemed surprised to find a squad of revolutionaries on his stoop. He told us he was our teacher’s father. He held his reading glasses in his hand while he talked to us. A woman, our teacher’s mother it turned out, came to the door and looked around her husband at us.
“She isn’t here today,” she called to us from behind him.
“They know that,” he said, peeved. You could feel the history as if it was leaking out the door, as if the all their ancestors had been awakened by our knock.
I’d always imagined our teacher living somewhere like Washington Heights in a little apartment and rushing out the door every morning in a great clatter and jumping onto a bus at the Port Authority at the last possible second, trailing test papers behind her, and crossing the bridge to hit the classroom just seconds ahead of us. Now instead I was picturing her being raised as part of this old venerable family; eccentrics all, probably, who had probably lived for generations in this same brownstone, like in some movie starring Spencer Tracy as the broke-but-proud patriarch.
One of us explained we’d come in to see Pete Seeger and had just blown by to say hello on the spur of the moment, you know, since we were in the neighborhood and all. It all felt vaguely embarrassing, like we’d stopped by to ask her to come out and play or something.
“I’m sure she’d be very proud to hear that, proud that you came all this way to see Pete,” her father said and you could tell he meant it. And you could tell he was proud that we’d come by to see her, too. He called him ‘Pete’ like he was a friend. It wouldn’t have surprised me.
“Do you girls and boys want to come in for some ice water or maybe some tea? We have everything,” her mother said.
Her husband shot her an annoyed look and you could tell he thought he was just a little hipper than his wife, just a little more in tune with the ‘young people.’ He would never have offered us tea—maybe a drink, but not tea.
We made all kinds of polite noises that added up finally to ‘no.’ None of us could think of anything worse than sitting there half the afternoon with our teacher’s parents, no matter how cool they were, and the maid and who knew what ghosts. We said our good-byes and headed down the steps. The girl with the chocolate eyes took my hand.
“We’ll tell her you were here,” her mother sang after us and I had no doubt that she would.