“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?








I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister

It’s so outrageous that it’s almost beyond outrage.

A TV commercial for the tax-return outfit Jackson-Hewitt features a soundtrack of “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” — sung by the late, great Pete Seeger.

It’s an old-late 1950/early 1960s Smithsonian Folkway, recording so I’m assuming that Pete’s family has no control over how it’s used. And his performance is from the late 1950/early 1960s vintage Smithsonian Folkways recordings, so perhaps those recordings are now also beyond the reach of copyright protections. .

Doesn’t matter. Pete Seeger would never, ever allow his voice to be used for a TV commercial unless it was to promote a cause.

I hope the Seeger family will demand that Jackson-Hewitt pull the commercial — or at least change the soundtrack. And I’d suggest asking — or demanding — that the tax-preparation firm makes a big donation to Pete’s beloved Clearwater Foundation.

Before he performed solo, of course, Pete Seeger was a member of the legendary group The Weavers. Before that, Pete — along with his pal Woody Guthrie — was a member of the Almanac Singers. Here they are singing an appropriate song:

The Christmas star dimmed


It’s not easy to diminish Christmas. But Christmas star shines just a little less brightly this year in a world that’s lost Pete and Toshi Seeger.



Freight Train, Freight Train, Goin’ So Fast…

I was thinking Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash and the romance of America’s wide open spaces.

Instead it turns out that the freight train rumbling through a wooded ravine near my writing studio a dozen times each day probably isn’t carrying hoboes and adventurers and descendants of Tom Joad. It’s more likely carrying Clorox bleach, or Pine-Sol, or Glad trash bags, or Hidden Valley salad dressings, or Brita water filters, or Burt’s Bees natural personal-care products.

Turns out this freight train, which seemed so poetic, is rather prosaic.

The trains run along the Norfolk Southern’s north-south mainline between Washington, D.C., and Birmingham, Alabama, passing through Amherst, Va., which is home to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I’m in the midst of a fiction-writing residency – and to the Clorox Company, which manufactures all of those products. The freight trains service the Clorox facility here, according to the town of Amherst’s website.

My writing studio at the VCCA is at the crest of a hill in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, on property which used to be a horse farm and where a few horses, lots of cows, coyotes, deer — and a woodchuck, which I spotted this morning peeking out of one of its holes in a nearby pasture – share space with about 30 artists, writers and composers.

So while I have been hearing some not-very-desirable sounds, including the hum of the nearby highway to Lynchburg, I-29, and the snap of hunters’ gunshots in the nearby woods and fields, I also hear the neighing of horses, and the barks of coyotes, and the hoots and screechs of owls — and the lonesome whistle and mighty rumble of that freight train.

The freight trains are carrying bleach and plastic trash bags and salad dressing and Pine-Sol? So what? It still makes me think of this song by the late Elizabeth Cotton, sung here by Pete Seeger:

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.


On Sunday night, I found myself attending an interfaith Thanksgiving service held at a Protestant church in Central New Jersey.

There were Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Jews. There  was music, ranging from songs by an Indonesian Christian choir, to klezmer, to something called  the Dalai Lama Mantra. There were readings and prayers, from the Quran (in Arabic and then English), and from the Testaments (old and new).

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away,  bombs and missiles — fueled and propelled by ethnic hatred and religious intolerance — were destroying lives in Palestine and Israel.

As good as it felt to be in the midst of this Thanksgiving gathering, I found myself wondering if it truly offered reason for hope — or whether it was really cause for despair, an illusion of harmony, a cruel mockery,  a comfortable delusion.

My thoughts have settled somewhere in the middle.

Yes, it was a good thing that people could come together at a church in New Jersey in the name of brotherhood and peace, joining in a celebration of their shared belief in love and in joyous celebration of life.

Folksinger and activist Pete Seeger says it  will be small groups of people, not big organizations and governments, that will solve the problems of this world. Pete’s banjo is inscribed with these words: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

Well, I agree with the many people who believe Pete deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for all the good he’s done and the difference he’s made in this world, but Pete’s approaching his 95th year on this planet and when he goes to his grave there will still be wars raging and people dying and babies crying as bomb blasts rock their cradles.

My 80-year-old mother, who was a girl during World War II and had two older brothers see combat in Europe and the Pacific, was watching a news account of the recent violence in the Middle East, and said as she shook her head sadly: “Why can’t people just be nice to each other? Why can’t they just help each other?”

I’m afraid it’s the nature of the beast. This has been going on since the world began and will continue until the day a big meteor comes whizzing out from behind the sun and returns mankind to the cosmic dust.

I’m glad that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians are able, sometimes, to come together in peace. But this time of year, a couple of weeks before the anniversary of his murder, I hear John Lennon’s challenge: “Imagine there’s no countries…No need for greed…No hunger…And no religion too.”

But even John Lennon, a man of peace and a man of dreams, could not escape the violence of hatred. Still, I believe his heart was in the right place. So is my mother’s. Why can’t people just be nice to each other? We need to keep trying to imagine, even when reality makes it very hard to do.

Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go…

Got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide…

The title of this post — of course! — is from the song “Uncle John’s Band” by the Grateful Dead.

Let me take you down ’cause I’m going to…
I’ve been staying recently in my old hometown of Yonkers, N.Y.

A time to mourn…
One morning a few weeks ago I acted on an impulse and visited my father’s grave — more specifically his pullout drawer high up in the marble wall of a creepy mausoleum in Hartsdale, N.Y.

To everything there is a season…

The depraved piped-in organ music and the sickly funeral-home smell of flowers got me thinking about my own funeral plans.

Little trip to heaven…
Basically I have no plans. I do know I’d like to be cremated. I do know I don’t want a funeral.

Imagine all the people….
I think I’d like my friends and family to gather for an informal nondenominational memorial celebration.

May you stay…forever young…
I’d like my younger daughter to read one of her poems. I’d like my son to play something on his guitar. I’d like my older daughter to choose and read some samples of my own writing.

No need for greed…no hunger….
I’d like donations to me made in my memory of anti-hunger groups, peace groups or literacy groups.

And…most important of all perhaps…

May your song always be sung…

I’d like there to be a really good sound system set up
to play these songs (in no particular order):
“Uncle John’s Band” by the Grateful Dead
“Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles
“Little Trip to Heaven” by Tom Waits
A Bach cantata
“Forever Young” by Bob Dylan
“Turn Turn Turn” by Pete Seeger
“Amazing Grace” (no bagpipes, please!)
and, of course, “Imagine” by John Lennon

Someone who’s more than dear to me wants her final farewell to include Eva Cassidy’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World…”

My poor father requested “Ave Maria.”

So many other songs would be appropriate and meaningful and sprung from the heart. So maybe I’ll add a few more songs and someone can burn a CD…it would make a nice departing gift for everyone in the studio audience to take home — and take to heart.