Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Goodnight, Pete, I'll see you in my dreams"*

I wrote to Pete Seeger in 1969, inviting him to perform at our Earth Day celebration at Cornell University, the first one, to be held on April 22, 1970. He wrote back, saying he couldn't come because "I am up to my ears in projects which I have started on and have not finished ..." (He added, "There is another singer from the Hudson River Sloop who I believe would be very good ... Don McLean ... He is an extraordinarily talented young fellow who within a year or two is going to become very famous." He was right. Don McLean's American Pie was a number 1 hit song in 1972 and the number 5 Song of the Century.)

Pete ended up singing at the Washington, D.C. celebration of Earth Day, but he did give a concert for us at Cornell.  One of my friends, also a Pete Seeger fan – and an automobile enthusiast, was eager to find out what kind of car he was driving. He was disappointed when Pete called from the Ithaca bus station asking if someone could pick him up and give him a ride to the campus. When Pete found out that his concert at Bailey Hall was sold out, he offered to give a free performance afterwards. We had to scramble to find a sound system that we could use outdoors.

While Pete Seeger was best known for his songs and music, he was also a great storyteller. Telling a story to introduce or reflect on a song is part of the folk music tradition, and the stories were a good part of what attracted me to folk music (although aspiring to play Pete Seeger's guitar instrumental, Living in the Country, was a big attraction too).  Here is one of his many stories that has stuck with me, from “Seek and Ye Shall Find,” on his album, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy and Other Love Songs. It's no coincidence that in 1974 I named my publishing company This Too Shall Pass Press.

The King and His Wise Men
There was once a king in the olden days. He had three sons and he wanted to give them a good education. He called in his wise men, he said I wish you’d boil down all the world’s wisdom into one book that I’m going to give my sons and have them learn it. So the wise men went away, took them a whole year, and they came back with a beautiful leather-bound volume, trimmed in gold. The king leafed through it. “Hmm. Very good. Yes, this is it.” He gives it to his sons, and said, “Okay, learn it!”

Then he turned to the wise men and he said, “You know, you did such a good job with that, I wonder if you couldn’t boil down all the world’s wisdom into one sentence. Well, the wise men went away, it took them five years. They came back, their beards must have been dragging on the ground, and they said, “Your majesty, we’ve decided upon a sentence. “What is it,” says the king. “This too shall pass.”

I guess the king didn’t have anything better to do with his wise men. He said, I wonder if you couldn’t boil down all the world’s wisdom into one word. The poor men must have groaned. They went away. It took them ten years. When they came back they were all bent over. The king said, “Oh yes, what was that word?” He’d forgotten all about his little whim. They said, “Your majesty, the one word is: maybe.”
As I mourn his death and reflect on his life, I am pondering, "this too shall pass." And too, I am recalling his words from that letter he sent me in 1970, "I am up to my ears in projects which I have started on and have not finished ..." There is so much more to do, Pete, and you have done your part.

 "Goodnight Pete, Goodnight Pete, I'll see you in my dreams"*

* This line is adapted from Pete Seeger's first best seller, recorded by The Weavers, Goodnight Irene, which repeats the line, "Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene, I'll see you in my dreams." I heard it this morning on WAMC radio as the closing line of one of the listeners who called in and thought it was a great tribute.