I caught something forty years ago from a man who died this week, and I’m glad I did. Pete Seeger, who passed away this week at the age of 94, was the sole inspiration for my passion for learning to play guitar and banjo back when I was in high school in the early 1970‘s. His vitality and spirit that came through his playing and singing was contagious for me and I wanted to sing as well. It was simple, I learned to play folk music because I wanted to be like Pete Seeger.
I am incredibly fortunate to be able to say that I saw Pete Seeger in concert several times and there are two things that I remember most about those wonderful experiences. The first is the incredible range of music that he would perform. I will never forget his dancing and stomping around the stage as he told the story and sang the children’s song, “Abiyoyo.” It was hard to know who was having more fun at those moments–the adults and children in the audience or Pete himself. It was powerful how this master of song would change the mood on a dime by following a fun-loving children’s song in his concerts with a spiritual song such as “Turn, Turn, Turn,” Amazing, Grace,” or “We Shall Overcome.” Those songs might then be followed by a social protest song or a song about cleaning up the Hudson River, a cause he spent decades supporting. I was always impressed by how passionate and at home he was with each of these musical genres. While the style and mood of his music would change, his inner vitality and inner light remained the same, mesmerizing and enthralling the diverse crowd as he wove the music together into a tapestry of emotion and thoughtfulness for one and all
The second signature memory I have of a Pete Seeger concert is something that would become apparent a few seconds into the opening song. We concert goers would quickly discover that we were not so much at a concert, but were participating in a singalong. When Pete sang a song, he always sang it twice. Before singing each line of a song he would sing or speak the line to the audience so that they could then sing along with him going forward. He taught us the song as he sang it and pretty soon we found ourselves in the midst of a 5,000 member choir singing and swaying to the music. Pete Seeger’s concerts, like his music as a whole, had the power to create community where every voice was encouraged and welcomed.
If you look at the picture at the top of this column you will see a picture of Pete Seeger as song leader. You can sense his contagious energy as he is inviting, or rather calling forth, the audience to sing along. Fans are created when a group of people enjoy having the voice a great singer lifted up. Community, on the other hand, is created when everyone’s voice is welcomed, lifted and becomes an integral part of the gathering. Authentic, spirit-filled communities (be they families, faith communities, groups of friends or people at a Pete Seeger concert) where everyone’s voice is encouraged and heard are contagious. We want to be a part of them–and we want to sing along.
Thanks Pete for inspiring me to use my voice to make music and more importantly, for inspiring everyone who continues to create communities of spirit and love where everyone’s voice is encouraged and welcomed. May we all, in honor of Pete Seeger’s memory, continue to create places where everyone’s voice, in this singalong we call life, is welcome and all are included in the choir.