“Nevertheless, don’t give up…”

Pete Seeger's still singin' and strummin' at 90 years old!

A snowy afternoon found me digging through a box of keepsakes. There were old newspaper columns, drawings and cards my children gave me when they were young, newspapers from 9/11 and when Joe DiMaggio died, rejection letters from publishers and agents, a forgotten letter from the great poet Robert Lax, my mentor and dear friend  — and a forgotten and very moving letter I received from the late, lamented Pete Seeger nearly 20 years ago.

I’d met Pete years before. About six months earlier he had driven down from Beacon, N.Y., to western New Jersey and performed a benefit show (along with his grandson, Tao Rodriguez, and local performers  — Amy Torchia and Jenny Avila, fiddler Bill Huber and the Jugtown Mountain String Band) for a charity I was running.  He very much liked the charity, which was called the Delaware Valley Holiday Fund, telling me it fit perfectly with his notion that small groups, not big organizations, would solve the problems of the world.

So now we were planning a return performance — this time it would be held outdoors, in the summertime, with a host of other performers, and Pete had asked me to come up with some candidates, and so (as I recall it, albeit vaguely) I’d sent him a CD of some of the performers. And Pete, in his note, was apologizing because he had not had time to listen to the CD — he asked to me to just go ahead and come up with some possible dates for the festival.

Here’s part of what Pete wrote:

“…Toshi and I have too much mail to handle these days…I don’t have time to listen to all the tapes sent me, nor read all the books sent me, nor answer properly all the mail sent to me….

“I guess it’s one more way in which science and technology have unbalanced the world — the economy, the ecology, the population, the personal relationships — and our personal lives.

“Half the world is too busy and the other half is unemployed. Nevertheless, don’t give up — There are miraculous things going on. Right?








Garden of life

A song Pete Seeger sings about gardening starts with these words: “Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make my garden grow, gonna mulch it deep and low, gonna make it fertile ground…” Pete has learned that much of life is about sowing, planting, cultivation, and reaping what ye sow.

I once had a big garden, a good-sized fenced-in plot, and there I grew tomatoes, bell peppers, jalapeno peppers, onions, basil, oregano, bush beans, snow peas, eggplant, carrots, spinach and lettuce. Mixed in with the vegetable beds were patches of wildflowers.

I kept at it for quite a few years, but my digging and weeding and harvesting crew dwindled until it was reduced to one person — me, and I couldn’t handle all of that weeding and maintenance on my own, so gradually the garden plot got smaller and smaller.

Then came a time of great turmoil and great change, and I was uprooted, and I found myself sometimes like a dandelion seed caught up in a gust, like a maple tree’s seed pod helicoptering to who-knows-where and God-knows-what, and the house and its two acres were sold, and for all I know the people who bought the house may now have a horseshoe pit on that rectangular plot where my garden once grew, or maybe they’e simply let it go to weeds and thistles and grasses and brambles.

Recently I have found myself again planting things, albeit on a much smaller scale: two tomato plants, four pepper plants, a couple of basil seedlings. I’ve also dug up a couple of beds for flowers, and I’ve pulled some weeds, and I’ve trimmed and fertilized two old rose bushes, and I’ve planted a few perennials – including an old-fashioned flower called bee balm, which attracts butterflies and hummingbirds and bees.

bee balm and snapdragons
Bee balm and snap dragons await the arrival of hummingbirds and butterflies and bees

It’s been good and familiar, to once more be breathing in the strong aroma of dirt and humus and garden manure, to again be reaching in to mix and blend and break up the soils. Pricking my hands on rosebush thorns. Getting my hands dirty. Looking at the plants every few days and being pleased to see that they’re still alive and have maybe even grown.

Inch by inch. Row by row. Gonna make this garden grow, this garden of delight. It has to do with cultivation — of hope, life and love. It has to do with nurturing and being nurtured. It’s about beauty, and the miracle of things that blossom, and deep gratitude for the things in life that bud and then burst into bloom.

If they ain’t got that do-re-mi…

The title of this post refers, of course, to the song “Do-Re-Mi” by Woody Guthrie — which is perfectly apt, since Woody’s buddy Pete Seeger is lending his voice to a campaign to raise money for the trailblazing Sing Out! magazine, which has hit a fiscal sour note as it marks its 60th year of publication.

Here’s Pete:

And here’s a treat. Woody sings about how folks treat you if you ain’t got that “Do-Re-Mi”:

A party for Pete

Yes, I’m talkin’ Pete Seeger. No, I’m not talkin’ about the Communist Party or the Wobblies or any of those sorts of parties and movements. I’m talking about how there will be a movement of about 19,000 people into Madison Square Garden on Sunday, May 3, when dozens of great musicians will gather to celebrate the amazing Mr. Seeger’s 90th birthday!

Some of the performers who will be on hand to honor Pete:
Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Eddie Vedder, John Mellencamp, Ani DiFranco, Bela Fleck, Ben Harper, Billy Bragg, Bruce Cockburn, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, Ramblin’ Jack, Richie Havens, Steve Earle, Taj Mahal, Dar Williams, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Tom Paxton, Toshi Reagon, Pete’s grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger…and, of course, Arlo Guthrie.

Limited ticket sales began today (March 23) and general ticket sales begin next Monday, March 30. Tickets are pricey — the good seats are hundreds of dollars and even the cheap seats are $90 each (for Pete’s 90th birthday). But proceeds from the show will benefit a great cause — the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, which set sail more than three decades ago — stewarded by Pete Seeger — to protect and restore Pete’s beloved Hudson River and other waterways.

Here’s a video of Arlo singing Pete’s great song “Golden River:”

The Clearwater movement’s close to my heart since I grew up on the New York side of the Hudson River. As for Pete, one of the highlights of my life was meeting Pete years ago and having the honor of hosting him as he performed two benefit shows — about 10 years ago, when he was a young buck of about 80 years old — to raise money for a charity I’d started called the Delaware Valley Holiday Fund. Pete, grandson Tao and Pete’s beautiful wife Toshi drove all the down from Beacon, N.Y., to western New Jersey, put on a show in a packed high-school auditorium, then drove right back home to Beacon, and the only compensation they received was a basket full of sandwiches and fruit and cakes to sustain them for that long drive back to their home up on the Hudson. A year later, Pete and Toshi were back, doing another benefit show for our charity, this time outdoors, once again free-of-charge, at a park in Pennsylvania along the Delaware River.

This is what Pete Seeger’s been doing for 90 years. Helping people, fighting for justice, singing songs of peace, dispelling hate and spreading love. Happy birthday, Pete!

Standing together

Can a song change the world? I walked into my favorite cafe this morning and John Lennon was singing “Tomorrow Never Knows” and I’m wagering that there’s a song that changed somebody’s world, maybe even mine.

What about something by Bach? By Charley Patton? By Billie Holiday? By Elvis? Did “That’s Alright Mama” change the world?

Here’s a link to a You Tube video of an around-the-world singalong to the song by Ben E. King, “Stand By Me.” The idea’s kind of like what Arlo Guthrie described in “Alice’s Restaurant” —  three people sing it, and they may think it’s an organization. Fifty people start singing it, fifty people a day, and they’ll think it’s a movement. It’s like Pete Seeger might say — get enough people singing a song together, they might even start clapping their hands, and if they’re clapping their hands, those hands will be too busy to do anyone any harm.

Here’s the  “Stand By Me” link:

Click on it and start singing!