I'm about three hours from flying to New York, on a strange but super-cheap, double-layover red-eye combo flight. I'm not worried about the long trip - I have the time and good books to read, Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn and Tom Robbins' Villa Incognito. Plus I'll be able to zero in mentally on this trip's centerpiece: Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall.
I've seen Arlo twice, in the last couple of years, but never Pete, who I consider to be pretty much the greatest living American. I guess you'd have to start off by calling Pete Seeger a musician, which fits, because I'm traveling to see him pluck a banjo and sing. But while musician might be good on a business card, it doesn't even approach a full or reasonable description of Pete's life and career.
I've come to treasure and seek inspiration in Pete Seeger for his creativity and his unwavering faith in the power of music and the power of people to make themselves one through music, theirs and others. An all-too-easy term for Pete is activist, and while his politics were from time to time clearly defined, and something for which he was victimized by the powers that be, I don't see him as a political figure. Politics and politicians live and die every day, bursting onto the scene or dying into the background. The most sustained thing you'll ever see in politics is a movement, the sort of ill-defined and loosely organized catch-all phrase loved by the TV news.
Pete Seeger was so much more - he's been a crucial and wildly influential part of the culture, the very life and soul, of this country, for three of my lifetimes. And I think he was driven for all that time by the simplest of motivations, to make people happy. He brought songs and passion and joy to the causes of justice, fairness and equality.
That no person or group should ever be oppressed by another, and that everyone should share in freedom and opportunity just as they share in the sunshine and oxygen that make life possible, and that a beautiful melody carries the power of humanity are hardly radical notions. But in Pete's days, sometimes they were called radical, and sometimes he was called a radical. What's so remarkable is the fact that he never stopped singing, never put down the guitar or banjo, never wanted to capitulate to anyone, and that even facing the vile and incomprehensibly insulting blacklist, he didn't shut up.
I expect a rollicking good time tomorrow. I expect to be awed by the 89-year-old singer. I expect to laugh a lot. I expect Arlo & Pete to broadcast friendship as much as music. I expect to see generations on stage, and to celebrate the continuity of Pete's ideals. I expect to sing along an awful lot, possibly crying, with a joy that comes from music and humanity and the presence of as great an icon as there has ever been in American life.
Pete was the subject of an extraordinary American Masters episode I saw earlier this year. Watch the trailer below:
Pete Seeger - Smithsonian Folkways Sound Session (48 mb, 53 minutes)