I have many albums of Pete Seeger, but my favorites are the ones where other people are singing his songs, as Pete wrote his songs for others to sing. Every time he sang a song in public, his was just one voice of hundreds singing along with his banjo or his guitar. Pete died earlier this morning, but those songs will remain for many years in the American public repertoire. His was a gift unlike any other to this country.
When I was younger I was often guilty of dismissing American Folk – too simple, too predictable, too formulaic. An older gentleman who was a colleague of mine in my first school often played me tapes of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and when I complained, he would just say “you’ll get it some day.”
He was right, God bless him – I grew to love this music. Maybe it was after I stopped trying to be a know-it-all young musician, maybe it was when I moved to the US from Ireland and started to meet the beautiful people here and to listen to them, maybe it was when I had the opportunity to drive across the country from Atlantic to Pacific, maybe it was when I started to notice the similarities between my own native Irish music and the music of my adopted country, maybe it was just when I stopped long enough to smell the musical roses.
I work in a field where technology is everywhere and the speed of change is dangerous – new software, new updates, new equipment, new ways to perform old tricks. It’s very hard to keep up. Sometimes I feel like I’m spinning down a rabbit hole of music technology, and the fact that my subject and my teaching have changed more in the past five years than I can fathom makes the thought of the next twenty-five quite daunting.
So my dirty little secret is that I find I always have to get away from the electronic music world, to unplug. I play a lot of folk music, Irish folk and American folk. I have a wonderful musical partner, Jared Denhard, who is the finest musician I have ever known. We both love the music that pre-dates the world of recording and electronics, the world before you had to be plugged in to be heard, the world of Stephen Foster, of Pete Seeger, of Woody Guthrie, of Turlough O’Carolan, of the old country and of the New World. We play banjos, ukuleles, guitars, dobros, harps, jugs, bones, washboards, spoons, and we sing….we sing…we sing. It brings me back to ground, it re-plants my roots, it leads me back to the well to draw more water, it lets me flower again. Whenever things become overwhelming in the stressful world of teaching, writing, and developing curriculum, I just pick up a guitar and play, and sing…and sing…and sing.
Our modern World is frantic. We seem to be constantly connected to our iPads and cellphones. We get our news from Facebook and twitter. Phone conversations have become text messages. When we can’t get a decent wireless signal, we’re stranded like whales on the beach. My dear friend Joe Pisano posted a prudent article about unplugging to Facebook the other day, and I must say I was touched by the irony of reading an article on my iPhone which was telling me I ought to put down the iPhone for a while. It’s a very good article to read, to share, and to keep handy.
Today before I began anything I pulled down a guitar off the wall and sang “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” and I thanked God for Pete Seeger. As my close friend Chris Palestrant said this morning – “Heaven just got a whole lot more musical today.”