HAVE BANJO, WILL COMPROMISE
November 11, 2007
By ROBERT BIESELIN,
WHO: Pete Seeger and Friends. (John Dull, Martin Dull,
Kim and Reggie Harris, Bethany and Rufus, and Ted Clancy)
WHAT: Acoustic folk/protest music.
WHEN: 7:45 tonight.11/9/2007
WHERE: Wilson Auditorium at Fairleigh Dickinson University, 140 University Plaza Drive, Hackensack; 201-692-2806 or dullmusic.com.
HOW MUCH: $40.
Below steadying rain, a faded red pick-up pulls through the bustling train lot in Beacon,
N.Y., and slows to a halt inches before a Hudson River ruffled by the frontline of a brewing Autumn tempest. It has to be him, the bumper stickers giving it away: “Close Indian Point” on the left side of the tailgate, “If the people lead, the leaders will follow,” on the right.
Sure enough, it’s him. Ducking from the cab, tall and thin, aged though nimble, Pete Seeger walks up the stone path, grinning with a banjo in hand.
“Hope I didn’t keep you waiting,” he says, leading the way into his Beacon Sloop Club, a non-profit whose goal is to restore and preserve the Hudson. The security alarm is
blaring; he disables it and sets up a circle of metal folding chairs.
I’d been waiting, but it was my own fault. Arriving early, I walked the grounds, viewed the choppy river, and visited the structure’s eco-friendly bathroom, where I noticed the first of the afternoon’s silent messages in the form of a framed piece of embroidery hanging in the water-less loo.
“The Earth Has Music For Those Who Listen,” it read.
As it turned out, so did Seeger.
He’d invited us there to talk about tonight’s show at Fairleigh Dickinson University, which raised funds for School of the Americas Watch, a watchdog group that seeks to close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, a government-run program in Fort Benning, Ga. whose cirriculum teaches “how to assassinate” and “massacre whole villages,” according to Seeger.
This, however, was just the launching point for myraid topics that included everything from global warming and "the enticing music of Bali," to the life of Johan Johann Sebastian Bach, and the nature of revolutions, "both political and informational."
“You ask one question and I just keep talking,” he said, smiling with a disclaimer, “My grandchildren say, ‘all I did was ask grandpa who Queen Elizabeth was, and two hours later he’s still talking.’”
In this grandfatherly manner, he carried-on for about the same amount of time, jumping from topic to topic excitedly, but all the while self-aware and lucid. For the rest of the afternoon, he would inspire us with tales of the past (touching tangentially on his trials before the House Committee on Un-American Activities), frighten us with his predictions of the future ("there’s a 50-50 chance of humanity surviving to see the near future”), and make us smile with a half dozen ditties he strummed on a banjo whose body read, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
As ever, for Seeger, "the arts are one of the only ways to spread peace.”
“The civil rights movement would not have succeeded without singing – singing in jail, singing on the picket line,” he said.
This is the same game-plan he embraced as a civil rights advocate alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s - only now the message buttresses smaller acts of civil disobedience, as Seeger increasingly acts as more of a community activist than he had in his heyday.
These days, quoting René Dubos’s maxim “Think globally, act locally,” Seeger is best known for local contributions: cleaning up the Hudson, creating community parks on its banks, and promoting peace and harmony on a microcosmic level. He sees it as a these as little battle victory victories in the a greater war in which we all battle.
“The powers-that-be have so much money that, if there’s a human race here in 100 years, it’ll be because of millions of little things,” he says, crediting positive changes to small movements including those of environmentalists and community gardeners.
He also credits compromise, albeit with a slight tinge of regret.
“Communists and Socialists made some big mistakes, both saying ‘We’ll lead the revolution," he said. “I distrust the word ‘T-H-E’ these days – the revolution, the solution, the savior, the way … progress, more often than not, is found in compromise.”
The strategy is evident in Seeger's clubhouse, as much as his word. Beside of sircle of chairs, a tree rises from the floor and carries straight through the roof.
“We wanted to widen the building when we renovated the [Beacon Sloop Club], but this tree was right next to the existing building,” he says, leaning against its broad trunk, “so, we left it there and built around it.”
At 88, no longer the supposed threat to national security seen early in Jim Brown’s new documentary “The Power of Song,” Seeger claims instead to be another “little guy” fighting for small victories and letting the symbols about him embody his cause.
Like the tree tin his river club, Seeger - who calls himself more optimistic than he’s ever been - is a survivor from another time; sometimes out of place, but always armed with a lasting (and refreshing) message: You can build around a man and his cause, but it ain’t easy to knock ’em down.
After a final song, Seeger folded up the chairs, rearmed the alarm and retreated with his banjo to the gray riverside.
Getting back into his pick-up, he paused if only for an instant, and looked west over the unsoiled Hudson, as the the rain softly plucked from the cold earth a song for a resilient activist still willing to lend an attentive ear.