Sunday, January 18, 2009

Going all weepy over Pete Seeger

I am still watching the online broadcast. The performers have been singing the song that should really be our national anthem, Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," and among them is the man who popularized the song for so many of us, Pete Seeger. He is old, his voice is weak, but there he is, with his colorful knit hat and his banjo, with Springsteen and others and a multiracial chorus of young people behind him and a multiracial crowd around and below.

Pete Seeger was the Commencement speaker at my graduation from Oberlin College. The Vietnam war was on, Richard Nixon was in the White House, and soon the Watergate break-ins would happen. The premier issue of Ms. magazine was in print. I had just turned twenty. It was May, 1972. Pete got up there with his banjo and sang most of his speech. He talked about cleaning up the Hudson River --my graduating class also was in college during the first Earth Day-- and about nuclear proliferation and pollution, and how there was as much Strontium 90 in mother's milk in the South Pacific as there was in the U.S. "There's no place to run to," he said. I have never forgotten his words. "There's no place to run to." By which he also meant "Get to work!"

We did.

He had the whole class of 1922 singing, too. They were there for their 50th reunion.

P.S. If you watch the HBO broadcast, you can catch a tiny glimpse of Bishop Robinson toward the end of Beyoncé's "America the Beautiful." Everyone came back on stage for that.

P.P.S. One of my students (who is now my teaching assistant for one of this semester's classes) texted me from the crowd during the performance this afternoon. :-)

Special P.S. for Padre Mickey: They kept in the verse about private property, too!

13 comments:

FranIAm said...

Oh I can't stop crying! I just can't!

FranIAm said...

Pete is our neighbor of sorts - he is in the Hudson Valley and is often on our local NPR station.

Those eyes, that smile - such true heart.

Mary Clara said...

Oh, girlfriends, I had exactly the same reaction: I'm so glad Pete is still alive to enjoy this blessed day and lead us all in song. I see from Google that he will be 90 years old this May. He has been one of my guiding lights since around 1959 when I was a college freshman.

Among all the emotions flooding my heart and stirring my tears in these ceremonial days, I find gratitude to be one of the most powerful.

Magdalene6127 said...

Amen to all that.


As an aside, George H. W. Bush was the commencement speaker at Boston College when i graduated (82). He was VP at the time. We wore white armbands in protest. (I was the commencement singer of the Star Spangled Banner. With my armband.)

Jane R said...

Magdalene! You radical, you. And you sang the Star Spangled Banner! A very difficult song, that one. Good for you. You must have had some voice. (You probably still have it.)

Algernon said...

I'm posting the clip, too. It's a joy. I love that they sang that verse ("that side was made for you and me") and enjoyed seeing George Lucas singing and dancing in the crowd.

Jane R said...

Oh, my, there's a clip! YouTube is an amazing thing. Thanks, Algernon.

Ken said...

Obama, contrary to the snot-mouthed right-wing radio commentators, is not the Messiah. Nevertheless, reading about Pete Seeger showing up, I cannot help recall "Nunc dimittis servum tuum." No, I don't like the implications either, but there it is. That is, could Seeger have imagined living to see this day? Hard to say.

I have one memory of Seeger that will never leave me. Sometime in the summer of 1967, he appeared on a stage in Central Park with an enormous crowd going nuts. That is when guys in the fifties could still be rock stars. He sang and yarned for awhile and then the first thunder-boomies started. A summer downpour on the way. He spend up. "I'm gonna tell you all a story," he said, and began to sing "Big Muddy." And then the skies opened, the field turned to muck, and everyone was stamping and clapping. If you don't remember "Big Muddy" in the context of the Vietnam Thing, where were you hiding? Pete kept going, the crowd kept cheering, and I hope never to forget that moment for the rest of my life.

And now he appears again, and while I wish him years of life, reality suggests that he has seen what is likely to be the crowning moment of that same life.

Ken said...

I just went to YouTube and found the video from yesterday--Springsteen and Seeger. Wow. Just one of those moments that shakes you down to the coccyx. Someone on YouTube noted that Seeger looked so HAPPY. Hell yes. He has indeed waited and worked his whole life for this.

One question--who was the anonymous guy playing the 12-string?

Jane R said...

Springsteen introduced him at the very beginning of that segment of the concert, though I am not sure it made it onto the YouTube clip. He is Seeger's grandson. As you may glimpse he is part Asian-American. Seeger's wife Toshi is Japanese-American.

Jane R said...

P.S. The Salon commentator said that was Seeger's son, but I am pretty sure Springsteen said "grandson."

Which would make more sense, since Pete and his wife Toshi have been married at least sixty years and that was a young man.

Ken said...

The intro wasn't on YouTube. Oddly, my first instinct said "grandson" but I figured I was just romanticizing again: all that generational continuity stuff. Turned out I really should believe in my romantic notions a bit more often.

Jane A said...

I had the privilege of hosting Pete and his grandson Tao Rodriguez in Minneapolis in '93 (his song companion) when they were here for a benefit concert for our organization, and also got to share bagels with Pete while he serenaded me with "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." So thrilled to see him so vigorous these many years later and leading a celebration at this amazing event.