Sing on, Pete Seeger, sing on!

Illustration by Carol Coogan

To the Editor:

Every now and again, Earth is graced with an extraordinary person — one who makes such a huge positive impact upon the world as to leave an indelible mark of goodness, and an aching void of sadness in the wake of his departure from this life.

Pete Seeger died on Jan. 27, 2014, at the age of 94. He was a unique soul — a legendary folk musician, singer, songwriter, and a courageous activist for many important political, social, and environmental causes. His beloved wife, Toshi, preceded him in passing the summer before.

The loss is dominating most communications within the folk community. There are some who are seriously struggling with this, who just can’t believe it, who can’t imagine a world without Pete Seeger. The conversations that are going on are fascinating and poignant. There are so many stories of how this one single man made an impact on so many lives.

I went to my first Pete Seeger concert when I was a very little girl, having no idea what I was attending or who he was. My parents were certainly no folkies! It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized who Pete Seeger was. Hearing Pete live in concert at a very young age wasn’t the end and be-all of his influence upon me, but just the beginning.

I have been lucky enough to have been in the audience for Pete’s concerts many times. I saw Pete perform at the 8th Step and many other folk venues. I also saw him during his involvement with the Clearwater sloop and the clean-up and protection of the environment, not only along the Hudson, but beyond. I saw him at protests against nuclear power and war.  In some cases, I was standing right next to him and Toshi.

No one talks too much about Toshi but, in reality, Pete would not have been able to do what he did without her. He was the visionary, and she made it happen logistically. Pete Seeger, the icon, was really the sum of the two of them. It’s was a true, symbiotic partnership. No wonder their deaths were so close together.

Someone once told me that, if there is someone in this world who has touched you in a deep and profound way, you should let him know, and he encouraged me to write to Pete Seeger and tell him what he meant to me. I did, and received a letter in return from him, encouraging me in my life’s work. How grateful I am now that I reached out to him, and that he responded so generously and graciously.

I was fortunate enough to see Pete Seeger for the last time at the 8th Step at Proctor’s last year, when he performed with his sister Peggy. At 94 years old, he held about 2,000 people in rapt awe, and his “Spirit” glowed and emanated from his every pore.

On the morning that the news of Pete’s passing broke, my 21-year-old son called. He’s finishing his senior year at college with a double major in computer science and music, which keeps him pretty busy. I was surprised that he was calling me so early in the day.

“Mom, Pete Seeger died,” he stated incredulously. He was sincerely moved and touched. He recalled how he had been on stage with Pete Seeger and his own dad, when he was very little, during a concert in Albany’s Washington Park for a major anniversary of Ruth Pelham’s Music Mobile.

“I didn’t know who he was 'cause I was just a little kid then... Dad used to do the 'Abiyoyo' song that Pete Seeger did. He learned that from Pete Seeger, didn’t he?'

“Yes, your Dad learned a lot from Pete Seeger,” I said. “A lot!”

“I’m so lucky to have those memories.” 

The words of my son echo the sentiments of millions of others all over the world right now. What memories we are all, individually and collectively, lucky to have.

Losing Pete Seeger also brings up my grief at the loss of my husband, Paul Strausman, who was greatly influenced, like so many others, by Pete Seeger. Paul was like having my own mini-version of Pete, of course on a much smaller scale, and very locally. Paul taught “Land of Music” every summer at the Helderberg Workshop for 25 years.

He taught music; played concerts; and gave workshops to thousands of children, families, teachers, college students, and fellow folkies; wrote incredible songs; participated in activism against war and injustice and for protection of the environment and nature. Many Hilltown schools and libraries in the Enterprise area were very familiar with my husband during those years, having had him do programs and concerts there when he was alive.

The only thing that stopped him from continuing was his sudden and unexpected death on Christmas of 2008. Paul had been elected president of the Pickin’ and Singin” organization that is closely associated with Old Songs in Voorheesville. But he died just before his duties were to begin.

Paul Strauman was not as widely known as Pete Seeger, but Pete’s work and spirit and legacy was widely known because of Paul Strausman.

We have lost a national and world treasure who lived right here in our own New York backyard! We are experiencing a mufti-generational mourning of elders and seniors and mid-lifers and twenty-, thirty-, forty-somethings and even little children who are still fortunate enough to hear his songs and music of silliness, love, empowerment and peace.

And yet, this loss also resonates with inspiration and hope. Pete’s vision of peace and justice and equality for all lives on and continues to influence. Like a ripple that keeps going out from a pond, Pete’s music will keep going out all over the world, spreading the message of non-violence and peace and justice and equality for all.

For years to come, generations will carry on, singing truth, and refusing to compromise a vision of a better world. Whenever two or more gather to share and create music, or walk a picket line to fight for justice and a better life for all, or enjoy the beauty of nature and vow to protect the diversity of life on this planet, or treat one another with kindness and respect, the seeds that Pete Seeger planted will bloom and flourish. 

Sing on, Pete Seeger, sing on. Your roots run deep, and the branches of your trees grow tall and strong.

Sing on, Pete Seeger, sing on.

Carol Coogan

Albany