Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Happy Birthday, Pete!

Today is Pete Seeger's 86th birthday. I know this is a public health blog. But what better place to celebrate the birth anniversary of someone who has tried through song to make this a better world for everyone. Is there a better way to fight? Public health writ large.

I first saw him in person at Carnegie Hall in 1962 when he introduced a young friend of his, Bob Dylan (for one song, late in the evening). Since then I have seen him in concert often, the last time two years ago in Charleston, SC. I learned how to play the 5-string banjo from his book (misleadingly entitled, How to Play the 5-string Banjo). My children were weaned on his songs. I treasure a playbill autographed to me and my family with his trademark banjo drawing, although I never met him in person. It was a gift sent through a group he did a benefit for that I also helped. It hangs on my wall.

There is a characteristically affectionate tribute to him from his elder, Studs Terkel, in The Nation. Read it and feel good. Over the next several weeks many locations will be holding affectionate celebrations in honor of his birthday and you can look here to see if one is in your area.

Here is a bit of Studs' account of his first meeting with Pete, 65 years ago, when The Almanac Singers appeared at his door needing a place for the night:
That night when I first encountered the four wandering minstrels was a cold Chicago beauty. At 2 in the morning, my wife heard the doorbell ring. I was away rehearsing the first play in which I had ever appeared. It was Waiting for Lefty, of course. There, at the door, were the four of them. The first was a bantam--freckled, red-haired and elfin. He handed my wife a note saying: "These are good fellas. Put them up for the night." Putting them up was a rough assignment, even for a Depression-era social worker, what with the only spare bunk being a Murphy bed that sprang from the wall. Freckles announced himself as Woody Guthrie. The second was an Ozark mountain man named Lee Hayes. The third was a writer, Millard Lampell. The fourth, somewhat diffident, more in the background, was a slim-jim of 20 or so, fretting around with his banjo. He was Pete Seeger.

Since then, Woody has died. So has Lee Hayes. So has Millard Lampell. Only Pete breathes and sings, mesmerizing audiences, whether they be Democrats, lefties, vegans or even a sprinkling of Republicans. For sixty-five years, he has held forth continuously through periods known more for their bleakness than for their hope: the cold war, the witchhunt, the civil rights and civil liberties battles. Pete has been in all of them. Wherever he was asked, when the need was the greatest, he, like Kilroy, was there. And still is.
Well we are in bleak times again. I don't know if this generation finds the same hope and inspiration in political music we did, but if you've never listened to his music, buy one of the live albums and give it a try. For me he still has the power to inspire and sustain.

So thank you, Pete, from the bottom of my heart. And Happy Birthday.