At the age of three, an aunt gifted me with my first vinyl LP of recorded music. Until then, I had only enjoyed songs on the radio or through the speakers of my parent’s old phonograph stereo. It was almost liturgical to watch the way my mum would delicately pull out the shiny black disk from it’s colourful cardboard case, place it on the dusted turntable, then set it to spin, gently lowering the stylus down upon it’s edge. The initial crackle of sound through the speakers was like the opening of a door into another world. Suddenly the voices of Johnny Cash or Johnny Denver were alive in our living room ~ singing directly to us it seemed. My elder sisters too had their own records ~ Olivia Newton John, The Beach Boys ~ and just prior to entering kindergarden, thanks to my aunt, I received my own special record of songs to enjoy. “Pete Seeger and Brother Kirk Visit Sesame Street”.
Sesame Street was not a common part of my childhood, though I was familiar with a few of it’s characters. Pete Seeger and Brother Kirk? I had no idea who they were. But with birthday excitement, my mother helped me christen the gift and as the songs spun out of the stereo speakers, I began to built relationships with the voices I heard. Pete ~ he must have been the slight, bearded man with the banjo on the album sleeve…and Brother Kirk, the tall African American fellow across from him with the guitar. Were they talking to me? Singing to me? They must have been…I was the only one in the room hearing them sing “Hello Little friends how do you do? Hello, hello…hello…” They carried on harmonizing, telling me story after story through song. Listening to refrains like “Michael Row The Boat Ashore”, “Riding In My Car” and “This Land Is Your Land” (a song, Pete said, was by a “little fellow with curly hair who isn’t around any more…named Woody Guthrie”) gradually made me feel things I had never felt before. As they sang “Guantanamera” in a language I didn’t even know, I felt so alive… as they sang about a man who “had a dream” and was “shot down” (“The Ballad of Martin Luther King”) I felt so sad and emotional…and as they sang a dark, dirty song about “Garbage” I realized how important it was for me to keep the world clean. The tunes became standards for me between the ages of 3 and 5 ~ melodies and ideas rooted deeply into my mind and being. But as with many items from our early childhood, the album itself became buried in the basement someplace ~ a relic of my toddler days, too scratched to play and too much of a teenaged embarrassment to keep in the same record pile as discs by Bob Dylan, Harry Chapin, Phil Ochs or Natalie Merchant. By the age of 19 I had taught myself to play guitar and was venturing into live performances with a four piece acoustic band. Seeking new material and inspiration, I ventured back into my parent’s old vinyl folk collection to find one of their old Kingston Trio records. Quickly picking up the chords for gems like “Irene Goodnight”, “Hard Ain’t It Hard”, “Worried Man Blues” and “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” I began to look more closely at the album’s fine print to deduce the actual songwriters. To my incredible surprise I saw the reoccurring and familiar names… Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. “Could that have been the same Pete Seeger on my old Sesame Street album?” I wondered. Digging into the cellar, I dusted off the dogeared LP and suddenly my life in music, like a spinning disc on a turntable, came full circle and made full sense. During my fleeting formative years, Pete Seeger introduced me to spirituality, social consciousness, social justice and environmental responsibility through twelve simple songs that shaped me tremendously. In my adult years, reading more about his work and life, I realized that he was a very unique individual and radically different from most other commercial singer/songwriters I had grown to admire. In fact, I quickly came to learn that many of my musical influences and role-models (including the above mentioned Dylan, Chapin, Ochs and Merchant) were directly influenced or mentored by Seeger’s approaches to music and social action. Pete’s life story reads like an epic film. As an artist who is more interested in using music for positive change than using it to simply make a quick buck, his integrity, drive, dedication to social justice and passion for environmental concern have provided me with great hope and professional focus. It is not my intention here to provide his biography. Anyone who knows of Pete Seeger will be well aware of his legendary status as a musician and peace activist. To anyone who is unfamiliar with his name, I would suggest a viewing of the documentary “Power of Song”. The film may be purchase here or watch it on Youtube here.
Not long ago, I was surprised to find Mr. Seeger still personally, professionally and politically active well into his 90’s!
Like any devoted supporter of an artist’s work (OK, I’ll reluctantly use the word “fan”), I sent him a copy of one of my books, alongside a letter of gushy appreciation for all his years of inspiration in my life. To my utter astonishment, he wrote back to my home in Pakistan with a sweet note and the offer of sending me a copy of his book “Where Have All The Flowers Gone”. Too shy to accept his gift (besides, it already graced the shelves of my personal library), I wrote him back with thanks and condolences for the loss of his wife Toshi earlier this summer. As I wrote however, I felt a burning desire within me to ask him some very important questions about my own ongoing struggles at utilizing music as a tool for social change ~ especially within a very unique niche community of English speaking muslims who often debate the matter of music ad nauseam. A condolence letter did not seem fitting for such questions, so instead I sheepishly inquired about the possibility of meeting. Shortly thereafter, I was gobsmacked to find a gracious post card in my mail box from Pete, humbly dismissing his memory and wisdom, but suggesting I meet him at his community’s pumpkin festival in New York state. While some public figures and musical icons require entourages, agents, managers, label representatives or even security staff to protect their fragile egos and wilting laurels ~ Pete Seeger was inviting me to sit is his car and chat at a pumpkin festival! Two weeks ago, I rented a car and drove through beautiful autumn colours to the small town of only 14,000 residence where Pete has lived since 1949. The Festival was to be held at a local park on the banks of the Hudson River. When I arrived, tents and tables were being set up for the day’s festivities ahead. Musicians were tuning up to play on a grassy hill under open sky, large pumpkin pie slabs were being set out for afternoon consumption and in the shade of several flaming October trees, ladies sat weaving lovely wild-flowers into garlands to grace the hairlines of the more bohemian attendees expected to arrive. There, meandering through the late morning dew, was the tall thin man with the white beard who had once seemed to smile at me from a record sleeve, while his banjo rang out in my parent’s living room, teaching me the melody for “There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly”. Introducing myself to him and reminding him of our correspondence, we broke ice over my odd name and casually began walking through the park toward his van, where he felt we would be more comfortable to chat….and once seated, cozy beneath colourful walnut trees, chat we did. At age 94 Mr. Seeger was a wealth of advice, inspiration, information and conversation. He spoke of history, science, politics, religion and the arts, with a memory of crystal clarity and bright blue eyes to match. During our afternoon, ol’ Pete had me listening intently, laughing hysterically and even singing along with him as he shared his famous song “Abiyoyo” and a comical rap about the English Language while drumming on his steering wheel. The experiences of meeting, discussing his life, sharing my journey and opening up about some strange struggles of my career with him were all very personal, meaningful and moving. For those reasons, I will not go into too much detail on the specifics of our talks. What I will say is this: Whatever respect I held for Pete Seeger’s character ~ as presented through his work, music, biographies or media articles ~ was intensified a hundred fold after sharing two hours with the man himself. Our afternoon together went well beyond just theoretical discussion on the world’s many struggles and our suggested solutions. Within only moments of our meeting, Pete was a living example of his passion for social change. As we strolled through the park to his humble vehicle, Pete stopped momentarily to bend over and pick up something that had caught his eye. A quarter, or button perhaps? I could not tell. A few steps further, he paused again and bent over to reach down a second time. Intrigued, I watched more closely and saw him retrieve a tin bottle top from the grass. He tucked it into his palm with another piece of rubbish he had evidently picked up the first time I saw him bend. Several steps onward ~ he stopped a third time. I traced the paths of his eyesight and stretched arm down to yet another piece of garbage, only inches in size. “People drop things.” He said with a smile as he straighten up and pointed out still another piece of trash in our path. This time, I bent to pick up the plastic scrap before we dusted our collections and hands off into a nearby bin. In those moments I was reminded of his song “Garbage” from my old Sesame Street record and how it had effected me as a young boy. Over the past several years I had even added the tune to my playlists at schools, naturally also trying to establish a sense of environmental responsibility in the minds of my own daughters. I was so proud that, at age three, my little Maryam would try to pick up every piece of trash she’d see while we were out on family walks. What an honour to stroll alongside Pete Seeger in his mid nineties, picking up trash with the spry spirit of a hopeful child. Another adventure during our afternoon occurred when Pete drove me up to his hill-top house overlooking the Hudson. He had asked me to accompany him home so we could further our chatting while he fetched something he needed for the afternoon’s event. Along the two-lane highway on the outskirts of town, a tree limb had fallen from a roadside embankment and was slightly obstructing the shoulder of the motorway. Pete became very concerned about the branch and fearful that a cyclist would swerve to avoid it and possibly be hit by traffic. With the zeal of a teenager, Pete pulled a legal U-turn at a spot where the shoulder widened, doubled back to a drive way where he parked and let me out. Like a well timed scene by a crime fighting duo in some 50’s superhero serial, Pete waited for me in the van while I jogged down the highway toward the fallen tree limb. Larger than it looked while driving past, I was thankful for my Swiss Army Knife and it’s mini saw blade as I cut off the bigger branches and tossed them out of harm’s way. Lastly I took the heaviest part of the limb and threw it back into the woods from which it had come. Running back to the van, Pete was waiting and ready to hit the gas as soon as I jumped in. So many of us talk a good talk about bettering the world, taking responsibility, helping our fellow humans and working for positive social change. But sadly, we often make excuses for our lack of action. We become mired in mediocrity…complainers and critics instead of conscientious citizens. Pete Seeger ~ just short of a century on this earth ~ still picks up trash in the park, still sings songs of hope, still stops on the roadside to help others he’s never met, still responds to the mail of strangers with sincerity, still chops his own fire-wood and still provides me with an example of what it means to be a person of action…someone who embraces life with passion and hope. Before we parted I asked him, what I could do for him as a token of thanks. Pete said, “You’re in a very unique situation. Help (people) with humour. Help them see the inconsistencies of their ways. Help them to laugh.” As one last gift, Pete handed me a copy of the Gettysburg Address. This year marks the 150th anniversary of it’s delivery by Abraham Lincoln and Pete had made photocopies of it to hand out at the pumpkin festival. He closed his eyes and recited it to me from memory.
Around that time, the parked van was shaken by a violent thud on the roof, leaving both of us quite startled.
“It’s our tree branch coming back to haunt us.” I joked, as I opened the door to inspect what damaged had occurred. We both feared a limb had blown down in the wind onto his van.
Instead, there atop his vehicle, were two walnuts from the tree under which we had parked. We laughed with relief as I brought them back into the front seat.
“Should I toss them?” I asked.
“No, save them!” Pete said, “I’ll open them up later and see if they’re any good inside.”
Perhaps we should all follow Pete’s example with fallen people or fallen walnuts:
Save ’em and look to see if they are good inside before we just toss them away.