When I look at Pete Seeger’s face I still see it. That smile, the easy going smile of experience. The one that’s seen almost a hundred years of struggle, and I’m abashed and ashamed. It’s seems almost super-human to go through what he has and just keep singing.
His songs, and those of the Weavers, were just happy, hopeful songs. Blacklisted in the 50’s, crushed out of really, really successful careers and then coming back to sing in Carnegie Hall of all places, three years later to the resounding cheers of a packed house. Is that’s what’s behind that smile, the joy of a life well lived? To know that all who followed after, The Kingston trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan and hundreds of others, known and unknown following the same path of song in the face of adversity?
It’s a quality of some humans that I admire, perhaps because it’s one I often lack. My anger at injustice often gets the better of me, I can be tenacious but not always kind and smiling. I do know the better path even if I can’t seem to tread it often as often as I should.
That crowd at Carnegie wasn’t cowed by the cries of “Communism.” They bought their tickets, took their seats and brought back the Weavers from blacklisted doom. Even though it was the Blacklisters that fell to shame, the group was never again as big, or famous as once was destined but they were justified, and they did keep smiling. Better maybe than ever before.
It’s something to think about today, when times are tough and the forces of fear and distrust seem to wax more frightening every day. Pete slays them with that easy-going smile, he’s seen it before. He never stopped his happy war against distrust and anger. Even today you can motor idly by the Clearwater, his tall ship that sails the Hudson it’s helped to scrub clean, and maybe even hear a few bars of “This land is your land…”
The songs of Unions, the songs of country, America and others. The songs of hope through tragedy, and perseverance through indomitable odds. That’s all those songs were about. As much as those who cried “Communist!” sought to poison the thought of those simple, happy folk singers, the songs remained clear. They were a testament to the resilience of regular, ordinary people. Their ability to somehow float free of the wreckage of power games and begin again, over and over throughout time. That’s what the audience at Carnegie wanted to hear, that was what those who followed wanted to sing about as well. It’s what we all really want to hear. It’s why fear never works for very long.
Humans know the thoughtful, understanding smile says it best. That’s why people like Pete still pluck their banjo’s and croak out a tune that spreads that smile around the whole crowd. There’s not really anything to be afraid of, nothing that we all haven’t dealt with before, and lots to be hopeful about. It’s all a matter of trying again, one more time, just like the Weavers did in 1953.
Copyright Prentiss Gray 2011