Happy Birthday, Pete!

Sunday afternoon I went to a celebratory sing-along at the Featherstone Art Center in honor of Pete Seeger on the occasion of his 90th birthday. Pete himself was evidently in New York City at a big concert hosted by Bruce Springsteen, peace be upon him, but I am glad that I was where I was.

I’m generally not the sing-along type, but heck, this was a celebration for Pete Seeger! The man’s not only a great champion of liberty, equality, and democracy; he’s also the driving force behind Sing Out!, and who the hell am I to disrespect that? When Pete Seeger says “Sing!”, I sing. I sang as loudly and as well as I was able. Everybody sang. We sounded really good.

The United States of America skated very close to fascism in the 1950’s and 60’s. When most of country was denying or avoiding or hiding in fear from this simple, ugly truth, Pete Seeger was there singing it out to us, standing up to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, accompanying himself on 5-string banjo and smiling like the risen Christ.

It’s not at all clear that we’ve skated away from that hideous “ism” even now. Rather than rant about that, however, (it occurred to me as I was sitting on the floor Sunday, singing like a schoolchild, laughing or crying, or both), maybe I should try to learn a thing or two from the old woodchopping folk singer.

It was raining outside, so the “concert” was held indoors (instead of on the Featherstone Lawn, where outdoor concerts are generally staged)– which was kinda fortunate, actually, since the crowd was small, the acoustics were good (no microphones, and the only amplified instrument was an electric bass at modest volume), and the feeling was particularly intimate. We sat on the refurbished old wood floor; the walls were covered with black and white photos of cows and old buildings and flowers; artsy stuff.

Tristan Israel–the weary-eyed, ponytailed fellow better known to most islanders, or at least to most residents of Vineyard Haven, as the selectman of long standing who patiently, wearily, goes before town meeting every year and explains that yes, we’re all civic minded people; liberals, mostly; hippies, even; but still the budget must balance– played guitar and sang, along with Nancy Jephcote (and Paul Thurlow, see preceding link; scroll down), who sang and played fiddle and guitar. Mark Alan Lovewell alternated with the trio, belting out tunes in a reedy, loud, happy tenor voice not unlike Seeger’s own. And interspersed among the songs were readings and reminiscences.

The crowd of about sixty people was mostly grey-haired folks of fading hippie age, like me and dear wife. Inevitably, Peter Simon was there snapping pictures (maybe I’ll be on one of his calendars next year). After a while I was getting kind of cramped and twisted, but around me I saw people doing inconspicuous stretches from time to time. Lotta yogis in that room.

Richard Knabel, an island resident who met Seeger in 1967 when he, Knabel, was a 26 year old school teacher, and partnered with him on dozens of projects over the ensuing decades, shared a few short but moving reminiscences. He told about watching Seeger diffuse a tense, potentially violent situation by getting everybody to sing The Star Spangled Banner (which Seeger called ‘a famous old English drinking song’); about a three day canoe trip down the Delaware river with a small group of young people, during which, around a campfire, Seeger set an account of the Peekskill Riots in the context of the history of the USA from the Wobblies to the sixties; about watching Knabel’s own father, who had “been living in his own mind for years” find an instant rapport with Seeger–getting off the couch, going into is bedroom to dig up a squeezebox unused for decades, and singing Austrian folk tunes for him.

For me, the most moving moment of the afternoon came towards the end, when Nancy Jephcote and Paul Thurlow performed The Bells of Rymney. I remembered the song from the electrified version performed by the Byrds, but back then I had no idea what the song was about (the Byrds omit some of the lyrics, and swallow some of the others; and besides, their version is all about the Rickenbacker, of course).

As Nancy tuned her guitar to an open tuning (a minor key with three drone strings), she explained that it was about a mining disaster in Wales (or, perhaps it’s about the failure of the mineworker’s strike?). In any event it’s about miners, about working people dying and power and powerlessness and capitalism and hope and despair and solidarity. The miner-poet Idris Davies wrote the words and Seeger set them to music.

Nancy’s voice is “round” and lovely, big; Paul’s voice is actually pitched higher than hers, and he added a high harmony over his bass lines.


Oh what will you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney.
Is there hope for the future?
Cry the brown bells of Merthyr.
Who made the mine owner?
Say the black bells of Rhondda.
And who robbed the miner?
Cry the grim bells of Blaina.

They will plunder will-nilly,
Cry the bells of Caerphilly.
They have fangs, they have teeth,
Shout the loud bells of Neath.
Even God is uneasy,
Say the moist bells of Swansea.
And what will you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney.

Throw the vandals in court,
Say the bells of Newport.
All will be well if, if, if,
Cry the green bells of Cardiff.
Why so worried, sisters why?
Sang the silver bells of Wye.
And what will you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney?

Words from “Gwalia Deserta” by Idris Davies
Music by Pete Seeger
© 1959 & 1964 Ludlow Music, Inc.

I’m reading Primo Levi‘s heartbreaking final book The Drowned and the Saved. In the second chapter, Levi says,

It is the duty of righteous men to make war on all undeserved privilege, but one must not forget that this is a war without end.

I think that waging this war is what Seeger’s whole life has been about.

It has been his particular genius to use the weapons of song, optimism, and goodwill to fight it.

Knabel said that in all the years he’s known Seeger, he’s never seen the man express bitterness or resentment. Seeger sees the worst in people but looks for the best.

I’m trying to learn from that. In which spirit I’m going to avoid mention of condescending little shit at BBC, whose snide commentary on the occasion of Seeger’s birthday lurks out there somewhere on the web.


  1. Stupid hippies!
    Pete Seeger is a Korloonian!

    Wait, is this not the <a href=”http://wetmachine.com/T…“>two minutes hate</a>? Oh. My apologies.

    Also, if there is indeed a Sundman portrait by Simon from this event, I must have a copy. That would just be too perfect.

  2. Undeserved privelege doesn’t bother me. Its undeserved suffering that is a concern.

  3. Kellska,

    It wouldn’t be a “portrait”, Lordy. Just half of my head behind Dear Wife’s in a “from behind” snapshot of the performers. On another note, it’s always “two minutes hate” where I come from!


    Well, first of all, Levi’s remark is in the context of a larger argument that might be summarized as “Power Corrupts” –although his argument is more nuanced than that, of course. Privilege gives people power over others. Now, power can be used for good or ill, but when privilege is undeserved, it will generally be used for ill. On this point I agree with Seeger, Levi, and democrats and progressives everywhere.

    And second of all, since privilege is accorded to humans by human institutions, it’s something we can do something about. Undeserved suffering is something that we are often powerless to fix. (See (even better, purchase!) famous illustrated novella “The Pains” for an in-depth mediation on this topic).

    Chapter Two in Levi’s book, by the way, is called “The Gray Area”, and it’s about the moral culpability of prisoners in concentration camps who accepted privilege, usually hideously tiny privilege, in order to increase their odds of survival–at the cost of helping to ensure the continued functioning of the camp itself. This is not light stuff. It’s about as deeply serious as a book can be. I highly recommend the book, but be forwarned: it will shake you up.

  4. I enjoyed that event immensely. I could actually barely sing at all as I was recovering from more than a week of total laryngitus. It was low voice or none. That song makes my hair stand up.

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