An ode to Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger

The other day, somebody on Twitter — a place I spend entirely too much of my time — suggested, as wistfully as 280 characters could allow, that we should “imagine a world where people write passionate op-eds to the NYT in praise of poems they love.” 

I can absolutely imagine such a world. It’s nicer than the one we live in. 

Maybe Woodstock Times is ahead of the curve on this, because they’ve absolutely given me free rein to get very maudlin about John Donne in this column space (oh, John; dear John; difficult John). This time, I thought I’d stick a little closer to home, and wax passionate about Pete Seeger instead. 

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The Summer Hoot is coming up soon, the Ashokan Center’s annual three-day celebration of folk and roots music by the side of the reservoir in Olivebridge. Local folk-roots legend Ruthy Ungar, fiddler/vocalist of Mike + Ruthy and The Mammals and daughter of Ashokan Center fiddlemaster Jay Ungar, wrote to me and asked if I’d write something for their program. Something about music and nature and family and community. 

For me, the ley lines across all four of those landscapes converge on Pete. I’m sure I’m not alone there, certainly not in this town. Here’s what I told Ruthy.

Somewhere in my mother’s files, there’s a forty-year-old photo clipped from the Catskill Mountain News: me absolutely rocking out at a Pete Seeger concert at the old Bobcat ski resort in Andes. Old enough to dance, not yet old enough to worry about anybody watching me do it.

I was a huge Pete fan back in the day, though I didn’t know it. We had a turntable, my mom and I, in our little house up Dry Brook Road, and a few records to go with it. One of them featured the impossibly youthful Pete Seeger, in 1955. A fine, lonely tenor and a banjo, that’s all. 

They were children’s songs, but not as slick as most. I wouldn’t call them happy. There was a kindness, a gentle animating spirit, to that record, but those songs were full of an old and melancholy longing. A bat who flies the night because he’s lost his lady love; an old horse who “canters when he can.” This one stayed with me: 

I wish I was a mole in the ground

I wish I was a mole in the ground

If I was a mole in the ground

I’d root those mountains down 

As a parent, I feel on sure ground saying this: Children’s music is the worst. It means well. It steps lively. It has a certain verve. But there’s a sense, with most of it, that the people writing and playing it aren’t fully aware they’re making things for real live human beings. 

Children are people. Just like the rest of us, they are pulled along by the strings of their own emotions, they do the best they can to grapple with what they don’t understand. They know about death, and regret, and things you lost and can never get back. 

That record made me delighted and sad all at once, in a way I didn’t have words for then, and barely do now. I can’t have been more than four, but I sang along to “Little Black Bull,” feeling a thousand years old, feeling like the world had already passed out of some unrecoverable state of grace. 

The little black bull come down the meadow, Hoosen Johnny, Hoosen Johnny

The little black bull come down the meadow, long time ago

I lost that house on Dry Brook Road by the time I was five, the record by the time I was ten. And, like children do, I forgot everything about it but a few words, a few notes. I didn’t find it again until I was 20, idly shuffling through a stack of records in a basement store in some college town. There it was, “Birds, Beasts, Bugs and Bigger Fishes” — and, just like that, Dry Brook Road spilled over me like water over a weir. 

Music lives in the ether now. We can have it anywhere. We need never lose anything again. 

Still, place matters. Being together, singing and dancing together, the same dirt on all our shoes — it matters. 

I’m sure Pete would agree.

The Ashokan Summer Hoot, a three-day celebration of live roots music, local food and crafts, will be held at the Ashokan Center in Olivebridge, from Friday, Aug. 24 through Sunday, Aug. 26. For more information, visit the Hoot’s website at hoot.love, or call the Ashokan Center at 845-657-8333.

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