The news of the death of folksinger and political activist Pete Seeger, 94, was everywhere in the news this week. As well it should have been. Seeger devoted his life to making this world a better place for everyone, and I'm grateful that he lived long enough to see enacted at least some of the reforms he sang about with such passion and urgency for decades.
I'd never heard of Pete Seeger until the early 1960s when the folk music surge was so powerful everywhere that the Top 40 charts featured songs by folk groups like The Kingston Trio; The Brothers Four; The Limeliters; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and others. I loved that music--and decided then, in my late teens, that I was going to become a folk music sensation., too.
Link to info about that magazine, still being published).
I had never played a stringed instrument before--well, not counting the piano (duh)--so I had no callouses on my left fingertips. So ... a period of pain as I was learning How to Play the 5-String Banjo. Seeger is a patient teacher in that book, explaining the history of the instrument, the function of the fifth string (a drone string you don't fret). And pretty soon I was picking along in a sort of rhythmically challenged way to some old-fashioned folk songs. I learned about chords and various picking styles (most of which I could not manage to do), and pretty soon I had an insight: I suck on the 5-string banjo. Even this very sucky one from Sears. (And it was a sucky banjo--probably the real reason I couldn't play very well, you know?)
So ... how about a guitar? I traded my banjo to some guy for a cheap guitar, and I found I was a little more adept (though hardly virtuosic), and--as I wrote here a year or so ago--a college friend (Chuck Rodgers) and I teamed up and in the mid 1960s sang urgent folk songs around Hiram College, whose students were far too polite to get up and leave when we started wailing. Actually, Chuck had a very good voice, and I could stay on pitch most of the time, and I could play the chords and strum in decent rhythm--sort of. As I wrote here before, we actually had an audition for Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour (the 50s and 60s version of American Idol) and were scheduled to appear on the show in 1967. But the news got to us after Chuck was already out at grad school at the University of Wyoming, and I was trying to stay alive in Aurora Middle School, where I'd begun my teaching career and was just under water most of the time.
Years passed. I drifted away from folk music. My guitar (a Guild 12-string, acoustic, by this time) went in a closet, to emerge now and then for something at school. But I quit practicing, my callouses softened, it started to hurt my fingers as well as my ears (and self-image) when I played. So I haven't touched it in years.
But when the news about Pete Seeger arrived this week, it all rushed over me again. And I felt such profound gratitude not just for the memories--but for the dedication of that man--to traditional music, to the quality of human life. If I still had a banjo, I'd get it out today--and maybe the horrible sound would awaken Seeger one last time, would make him grab his own banjo, pick a few bars, and say, Now, that is what I meant!