My dad introduced me to music. Starting when I was a tiny kid, my father, who grew up fantasizing about being the next Buddy Holly, would sit cross-legged with me on the gold shag carpet in the den, acoustic guitar in hand, and teach me the songs from his generation, the songs he loved, folk songs. Tunes by the likes of Woody Guthrie, Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger. Ever since I learned to speak words, I learned to sing them, too. So, music has always felt like a second language to me.
I was listening to NPR on the way home the other day and heard this great piece on the legendary Pete Seeger who would be 100 today. Though it’s impossible to pick a favorite musician from all of those incredible songwriters, the songs Pete performed would have been Daddy’s and my choice for the best to sing together. His were tailor-made for others to join in, and he always encouraged his audiences to lend their voices; his music was inclusive above all. At his 90th birthday concert, he said to the crowd, “There’s no such thing as a wrong note as long as you’re singing it.”
Pete died in 2014, not quite long enough to celebrate his centennial, but long enough to experience a hell of a lot of things — and he, like his peers, wrote many powerful songs about them. Songs that tackled serious social issues, war and loss, equality and peace, even songs that, at first glance, seemed to be about simple industriousness but had much larger meaning, like “If I Had a Hammer.” In the car on the way to school, my dad and I joyfully “sang out danger, sang out warning, sang out the love between our brothers and our sisters all over this land” while the lessons gently, musically worked their way into my young mind.
Through the melancholy strains of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” — still one of the most profound and lovely songs I’ve ever known — I learned for the first time, from a man who’d been through it, the great price of war. The poetry of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” revealed the way life moves us up and down through its glorious and tragic phases and ages. “This Land is Your Land” is the best love song I’ve ever heard about America (sorry, Bruce) and has the most unifying refrain. “We Shall Overcome,” a civil rights song, is as spiritually moving as gospel music.
Banjo-plucking, people-loving Pete taught me, and a lot of others, a lot of important lessons about being human and being part of a community. His melodies were sweet and his lyrics deep. Singing them sincerely made Dad and me alternately laugh and cry. I still get shivers when I listen to some of Pete’s lines, realizing how true and necessary their messages continue to be. I wish we had more songwriters using their voices to take on the eerily similar crises of the current day, utilizing this most populist of art forms to speak out about injustice, to bring people together, to empower the tired and hopeless.
It isn’t any surprise that I started piano lessons at five, sang in my school and church choirs growing up, taught myself guitar in college, played in a few bands, and married a musician. I always wanted to be steeped in sound. The language of song is still what moves me more than any other.
Happy birthday, Pete. And thank you, Dad.
Photo via Wiki Commons by Motke Avivi (Israel National Photo Collection) [Public domain]