Ed Abbey and Henry Thoreau are, for me, foundational archetypes of wildness and self-reliance. But there is another archetypal energy that courses in my body and soul during these turbulent times – music!
The vibrations of music first entered my soul when I was at the University in Berkeley. It was 1965 and Pete Seeger sang at what was then called a “Hootenanny”. We were sitting in a basement coffee shop just off Telegraph Avenue, and I listened to him with rapt attention. At the time I played 5-string banjo and guitar and understood more about freedom and joy through folk music than through any University class. Pete’s was the first voice I ever heard sing We Shall Overcome; the first voice I ever heard sing If I Had a Hammer; and the first voice I ever heard sing Where Have All The Flowers Gone? His was the voice of American folk, the American conscience, and an authentic American dream.
Pete sang This Land is Your Land with its composer, Woodie Guthrie. He sang Goodnight Irene as a member of the Weavers. He sang with Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, Leadbelly, Doc Watson, and countless other folk legends. He sang at marches on Washington. He sang at sit-ins and at labor meetings. He sang on college campuses. He sang This Land is Your Land at age 90 at the celebration of the election of Barak Obama. He sang his songs from California to the New York Island, from the Redwood Forests to the Gulf Stream Waters.
The only people he didn’t sing for was the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1955 he was called before the committee and asked to name the Communist groups he had sung for. He would not. He said, “I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American.” He was charged with contempt of congress and sentenced to a year in jail. He successfully appealed the charge in 1959; (One wonders what I would be charged with if asked my opinions of congress. Contempt would be putting it mildly.)
When I get caught up in the little dramas of my daily life, I tend to forget the deep mystery of existence – a mystery that will not yield to philosophy; but will resonate in the human heart through music and poetry. As the chaos of culture deepens, I find myself going back over my collections of Pete Seeger songs and feeling the vibrations of that authentic music touching and enlivening the humanity within myself.
I miss you, Pete. But your songs will last for centuries and I’ll sing them as long as I am able.
Here is one of my favorites for the struggles of our time: