Thursday, 30 January 2014

Remembering Pete Seeger

I met Pete Seeger once.  It was in Montreal at a concert when I was maybe 14.  The whole family went, and afterwards we went backstage, and there he was.  I remember virtually nothing about it, except that I was still able to wear my bar mitzvah suit (people dressed up for concerts in those days) and I was in the presence of a famous man.

Not that he spoke to me or anything, but still …

We were raised on Pete Seeger in our household.  When we weren’t listening to classical music (none of those decadent Beatles for us), it was left-wing folk singers: Paul Robeson, Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete …

And I still have a soft spot for the music even though my politics are no longer left-wing.  Music can rise above politics, and there was something about Pete Seeger in particular.  Not strident, said an obituary this week, and that’s very much a part of it.  Upbeat.

Of course, in those days the Left was upbeat, resolutely optimistic, not preaching gloom and doom and global warming.  Gloom and doom was for Spenglerian reactionaries and the Population Bombers.

But he didn’t seem locked into dogmatic optimism either.  In fact, one of his most famous songs bothered me, the dogmatic leftist, for that very reason.  “Turn! Turn! Turn!” as he liked to say, was based on the Book of Ecclesiastes, the Bible.  The Bible!  How can you be progressive and quote the Bible!

But the Party Line was to revere Pete and if Pete was doing this, it must be okay.  But the message!  It wasn’t about the triumph of the people or a lament for the oppressed.  It was all about birth and dying, being happy and sad, fighting and reconciling.  About real life, in other words, not some ideological prism.  It made me uneasy … then.  Now it seems very touching and real, except for the last line swearing it’s not too late (for peace), the one ideological moment in the song (and the only line, except for the Turn! Turn! Turn! refrain, not taken from the Bible). ...

There was something gentle about Pete, like a kindly uncle, as one of the obituaries put it.  Oh, he could call for freedom and so on, but mostly he seemed gentle and puckish, sly, and friendly, reaching out to his audience, famous for getting them to sing along.  Let’s all be just one happy family, and that’s a pleasant notion.

Not a radical at all, said one of my co-workers this week.  But he was in the Communist Party, I said.  Oh, they weren’t radical, he said.  And maybe they weren’t.  Not in North America, where Communism meant summer camps and singing Solidarity Forever.

And he could be plaintive in his Flowers song.  Where Have all the Flowers Gone?  Where are the snows of yesteryear?

But in Turn! Turn! Turn! he was beyond all of that, joining with the author of Ecclesiastes in simultaneously celebrating and mourning the human condition.  To everything there is a season.

Rest in peace, Pete.