Pete Seeger died last night. This morning when I found out, I was back on the front porch of his cabin. I had the chance to meet Pete a few years ago. He and his lovely wife, Toshi, invited me into their home and I got the chance to see the man behind the activism.
I first met Pete in October 2011 when he was 92. Pete had come from his home to march with Occupy Wall Street. Pete and some others had performed at Symphony Space on Broadway. They had been singing to support a benefit for Seeger’s Clearwater group. By the time Pete had reached Columbus Circle, there were thousands of people swarming him and his grandson, Tao. The event was live streamed and many called it the Pete Seeger March.
Riding up with a mutual friend whom I had met in Zuccotti Park, the trip was just over an hour. Roughly following the Hudson, we passed land, towns and villages that had been around since the Revolutionary War. It was to be a trip that would introduce me to a man whose life had spanned the largest part of the 20th century. A man who, in many ways, had been at the vanguard of social justice in America.
Pulling into town, we passed many scenes that I remembered from Paul Newman’s movie, “Nobody’s Fool.” Beacon was just like it appeared when it filled in as North Bath in the hit movie from 1994. Leaving town, we wound through the curves and up the hill to the spot that gave Beacon its name.
Toshi was in the garden as we pulled into the gravel drive. Smiling and waving, she came over to greet us. As we got a tour of the garden and property, Pete came out and sat on his porch. Strumming his almost-ever-present guitar, he serenaded us with songs that were first heard when he traveled the rails with Woody Guthrie.
For the next two days I was with Pete Seeger. We talked about life, love, laughter, activism, the country and wildflowers that Toshi grew in flowerbeds draped around the yard. Since it was fall, there was a chill in the air and woodsmoke in the breeze.
I learned many things about activism in America from Pete during those days. I learned what makes a person an activist and what makes “…an activist a moron,” as he put it. Almost more importantly, I learned about me. I learned why I had a driven desire to cover social justice issues and the people that supported them. I learned why I had a distaste for “activists” who are satisfied with waving signs, chanting and signing online petitions. More importantly, I learned from Pete that everyone has a story to tell and that there are very few people willing to listen, much less tell, others’ stories.
Before too long, the visit was over. Pete would win the George Peabody Medal in 2013 and his audio book, The Storm King: Stories, Narratives, Poems, would be nominated for a 2014 Grammy.
Me? I packed the gear bag and settled in at Occupy DC for a few months, then traveled the USA covering social justice issues from West Virginia’s coal mines to immigration in Arizona to the environment and LGBT rights in Idaho.
The constant was Pete Seeger. At each of the protests and demonstrations, one or more of his songs would be sung and I’d be taken back to that porch on the hilltop in Beacon, New York.
By Jerry Nelson