Arts, Column

COLUMN: ‘Turn Turn Turn’: The Life And Dying Of Pete Seeger

He was a tall, gangly old man, waiting in line at a fruit stand set up for the festival. No older than 12 at the time, I had little opinion on this figure. My mother eagerly introduced my older brother to this strange man in a woolen cap-it was an afternoon in the early summer. Embarrassed, I shied away from the scene-recognizing his name as little more than a friend my aunt referred to in passing. Watching the encounter from a distance, the man struck me as simple, just another face in the crowd at the Strawberry Festival. A moment or two passed, and then I moved on, to play along the banks of the Hudson. For a long while, I never thought much of this encounter.

The man’s name was Pete Seeger. He was an American folk singer and a founder of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc.-an organization my aunt was for some time a part of-which led several environmental initiatives surrounding the Hudson River, one of which was the Strawberry Festival I had attended. The most notable of the group’s efforts was the construction and preservation of a sloop named the Clearwater, first launched in the spring of 1969.

At the time, the idea of comfortably sailing the Hudson was pipe dream. Between the years of 1947 and 1977, General Electric dumped by some estimates over a million pounds of the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which has since been recognized as a carcinogen, into the Hudson River. In 1976, all fishing was banned on the Hudson, based on what was deemed to be an extreme contamination of the river ecosystem.

Seeger and the Clearwater initiative were critical in pressing the EPA to force General Electric and several other companies actively polluting the Hudson to begin cleanup. In 1979, largely through Seeger’s active storytelling of the pollution of the Hudson, the United States Congress banned PCB production.

On Monday, Seeger died at the age of 94, and for all purposes, I was just another observer of his life. I remember Seeger still as that mysterious figure, waiting in line like anyone else. It’s only in recent years that I’ve begun to think how unusual that afternoon was. Here was this man, one of the most prominent figures in folk music history, a mentor to Bob Dylan and great influence to artists like Bruce Springsteen, and yet in that moment, he was just another face, and a fragile-looking one at that.
How are we to remember Seeger, who made his career largely out of a body of songs he inherited? While Seeger wrote several extraordinarily influential folk songs, including “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song),” he’s perhaps remembered best for popularizing the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” a song he didn’t actually write. Folk music differs from other genres in that it is formed from a collection of songs and stories passed down through a culture. It lives more in church music and American fables than it does in the work of any single artists.

For this reason, an anonymous face in a crowd seems a very appropriate memory of Seeger. His approach to music wasn’t much different than his love of the Hudson-it was something he inherited, and hence nurtured. Seeger’s legacy was in protecting and growing these streams, so that others might enjoy them.

Of course, there’s clear danger in reducing a man’s life to a metaphor, but his story is all the more compelling to me when I remember him as a stranger along the Hudson. There he was, standing in line, waited his turn like anyone else. When I think of Seeger, I think of all the other extraordinary lives potentially disguised in the calm in front of me, and how at the end of Seeger’s life, he was able to quietly enjoy the river he built a life around, with confidence that it would be cared for, surely knowing he’d soon be gone.

January 29, 2014