Row the Boat Ashore

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I have spent the past week thinking about Pete Seeger, the peripatetic folk singer who passed away last week.  Although I came of age too late for the 60s mission singer, I first saw this gentle, banjo-playing beanpole at Folk City in Greenwich Village when I was in high school.

Pete was a human network of the American experience, a 23-and-me for the folk set who reached back to the roots of our nation with big way stops with the post Civil War blues of Lead Belly and the American political parallax of Woody Guthrie.  For many teenagers and young adults of my generation, he was an early window into the American experience.

A gentle prod for the left side of American politics, Pete was a man with love in his heart: love of people, love of justice and love of America.

What is amazing — really amazing to me — is that when I was young, Pete was already old.  But his old was less about numbers of years than the window into the earlier side of the American century, the first half of the 20th century where the industrial might of American came to the fore and the agricultural roots of our nation receded.  That is much of what he chronicled – vilified and penalized by many – but it did not change the man he was.  While I understood there were direct political undertones to Pete’s message, I mostly listened to Pete’s song of America, a sweet tenor that shared a long view of our innocence and promise and the vast rolling land and people.   I still remember listening to a Pete Seeger record as a kid singing, “I’ve been working on the railroad.”

The distinct tones of a banjo present an American troubadour’s backbeat.  To this métier Pete sang songs of love, the beauty of land, and the rights of people – workers, people of the land.  His song could take you back 50, even 100 years like a time machine.

My fondest memory of Pete Seeger came on a warm, sunny summer day on a mountainside in Stowe, Vermont, many years ago where Pete was part of the line up of the Vermont folk festival.  It was my first solo driving trip out of New York with a pup tent, a sleeping bag, and a few dollars in my pocket.  After Pete’s set, he walked down off the stage and we waved him over to sit on the soft grass with us to watch the next musician.  Bending his legs like a large crane, he settled down beside us and accepted our offer of food and wine with a smile and a firm handshake.  Nervously I croaked to him, “this is great!”  He leaned back on his elbows to concentrate on Dave Van Ronk and said, “yes, Alan, it is.”

Jordan’s river is chilly cold, hallelujah.

Chill’s the body, but not the soul.

Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah

Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah

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