Pete Seeger died today at the age of 93. If ever anyone needed no introduction, well, it sure was Pete Seeger. And other, far more capable folks will write celebrating his nigh-on-a-century of staggering contributions to folk music, civil rights, and social justice.
So I thought it fitting to commemorate him as I remember him myself—a scruffy-bearded, white-haired, avuncular grown-up who sat on the tiny stage with a banjo and sang, captivating my three-year-old self. I didn’t know who he was but my parents seemed to think he was someone pretty special. I didn’t know he was a living legend. But I’d seen him Reading Rainbow, and it was pretty cool to see him outside of the box.
I don’t remember what song he sang at the concert. But on Reading Rainbow, any rate, he read a story that he’d written for his own children, a retelling of a South African folktale. As he explained in the interview:
I was singing a lullaby to me kids about thirty-five years ago, and you know, kids get about three years old and they discover that lullabies are propaganda songs… They don’t want to go to sleep! And they howled me down, “No! We want a story!” So I compromised—as one does in this world—said “OK, I’ll figure out a story but I’ll sing you the song too.”
And he told and sang a folktale about a boy with a ukulele, and giant who’d never heard a song about himself before, and here it is for you, too. It’s a trickster story, and a musician story, and here it is performed by one of the great musical tricksters of the twentieth century. A remarkable performance of a remarkable folktale from a remarkable man.
Rest well, Pete.
My Pete song from my poem-a-day project. Thought you might enjoy it.
Singing with Pete
“The words of the songs had all the meat of life in them.—Pete Seeger
Singing along with Pete was like a full course meal,
and you didn’t have to dress fancy or use your best manners.
Just open up your mouth and give it a holler.
You could use your fingers, too, snapping them,
playing the spoons, hitting the sides of your thighs
with open hands, like they were castanets, he didn’t care.
It was all music to him, body music, the meat of life.
He invited us all to the table, union man and boss together,
summer patriot and winter soldier plus a good old helping
of conscientious objector besides. Everyone got some.
It wasn’t just metaphor, you know. It was the real deal.
You never left his concerts hungry, but carried those tunes
home in a tote sack, to snack on all the rest of your life.
©2014 Jane Yolen all rights reserved