Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Pete and Me

I recently heard an NPR interview with Pete Seeger in which the interviewer tried to get his reaction to someone who, in the worst of the McCarthy / HUAC times of the fifties, had "named names" to the Committee, helping to destroy the Weavers' career and causing great damage to Pete in particular. "Aren't you bitter?" the interviewer asked. "I believe in forgiveness," answered Pete.

When I was 17, although I didn't know this at the time, I decided to become Pete Seeger. I fell in love with the Kingston Trio, a kind of Weavers clone, when I was in high school and I was drawn irresistibly to that music. I knew that I wanted to sing these songs with people, that I would do anything--but this is sheer revisonism. I was simply compelled.

I picked out a Sears guitar as a high school graduation present and took it with me to Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood. My roommate later told me that when I appeared in the room, guitar in hand, she thought to herself, "What is that?" I definitely was in the first wave of the Folk Revival at IHC. On weekends I would take the long bus ride to McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica to breathe in the rosewood-scented air and to build my collection of early Sing Out! magazines. When I had two chords to rub together (G and D7) I taught my class Everybody Loves Saturday Night, not hard since those four words comprise the entire song lyrics, which we sang at some now-forgotten event. Then I bought a long-neck five string banjo from a small outfit that advertised in Sing Out!, a banjo that I still play more than 40 50(!) years later, and took it with me everywhere. I went to my old high school to lead songs, I went to my old college (when it became my old college after that academically disastrous first year), to lead songs, and I went to the song swaps held next to an athletic field in Griffith Park. I put myself into situations I can hardly believe as I look back, since I was a shy person, all for the songs. I talked with Dave Guard after a Kingston Trio performance at the Hollywood Bowl and found out that he had learned the banjo the same way I was learning, using the Pete Seeger How To Play the Five String Banjo book and by exchanging letters with Pete himself. (Pete was famous for answering all his mail. When I wrote to him, Pete Seeger/Beacon NY, saying that I wanted to play the five-string banjo but hadn't seen any women who played, he wrote back saying that his sister Peggy played (he included a Folkways catalog of her recordings) and that he had learned picking in the mountains from a woman named, if I remember right, Samantha Baumgartner.)

When I left Los Angeles I left behind a large musical family, so I began to recreate my own up north. Every important relationship I've formed has involved lots of singing together. When Carrie and I got together in 1978, singing and playing helping to bring us together, we helped to found a very active and creative branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, an international women's peace and justice group. Now we led songs at national meetings as well as at local and regional rallies and memorials. One of my favorite moments happened when I carried the banjo to an anti-apartheid march in Seattle. We started playing and singing the great old songs and soon there was the first part of the march followed by a gap then a huge circle of singers moving down the street. I celebrate all my major birthdays by hosting a sing along. For my 50th I put a faux political button on the songsheet cover saying, "I owe everything I am to the Weavers." It's true. I do.

Here's what I know about singing together:

  1. You want to do it even if you don't know it yet. Don't avoid opportunities to sing together for any reason.

  2. Singing together means that your bodies are all vibrating together to the musical waves your singing produces.

  3. Singing together means that you're mostly breathing together. (Thanks, Nancy!)

  4. If anyone ever told you that you can't sing, don't believe them. Besides, it doesn't matter.

  5. Singing builds community. The civil rights activist and scholar Dr Bernice Johnson Reagon has talked of how singing together in the racist southern jails of the fifties and sixties removed the protestors' isolation and fear, made them feel close and connected. I believe that only a singing movement will last.

  6. Just sing. It'll do you good.