So the other night I went Pete Seeger’s house to conduct a taped interview for a coffeehouse show I’m producing in N.Y. on the songs of Woody Guthrie. After school, I drove the three hours with my friend and cameraman Bucky from Brattleboro, VT to Beacon NY. Having grown up around Pete and the sloop Clearwater, and having many mutual friends, I had been to his house several times before, but never had I had the opportunity to just sit down, talk and play songs for a few hours. I have had various interactions with him over the years, did concerts with him and recorded on his last CD with the Rivertown Kids, “Tomorrow’s Children”. Regardless, spending an evening alone with your (and many other people’s) hero is pretty cool.
His house is perched on top of a small mountain overlooking Newburgh Bay on the wide and powerful Hudson River. True to his usual modus operandi, the first thing he said was, “My memory isn’t what it used to be…”. Thus, we couldn’t spend much time reminiscing about the many friends we had in common through our common activities over the years. He is 93 years old– despite that he spent the evening telling stories like he always had.
Before we did the interview I mentioned that I had left some cookies in the car (my mother informed me of his sweet tooth). He said “Well, you know I’m a cookie-haulic”. (An hour later I took a look at the package and the 6 choco chunk full sized cookies were gone!). After talking about Woody as I had planned, I asked him some questions on behalf of the kids at Symonds School, the main one being how young people can make peace in the world. He launched into a story about how he has it made a habit to walk into classrooms and greet kids with “Howdy, cousins”. The Kids, he said would look at him like he was crazy but he would go on to tell them that we were once foragers and as the result of “progress”, our population would double every certain number of years. He then would go back to say that during the time of foraging, the few thousand people on the planet were all distantly related cousins and now, especially to children, that concept is simply inconceivable. However, we ARE all still cousins. Children need to remember that despite the color of your skin, language, etc, we are all related. Compassion, understanding, unity, and the power to not refer to another human as “evil” is important in your family and in the greater human family. Just like I say to my kids, “there’s no such thing as a bad kid, just bad choices”.
Of course I gave him a Symonds “Peace Place” cd and told him all about my school, the cd project from the year earlier and our social curriculum. After shuffling to the drawer, grabbing a new packaged flashlight, fiddling with the batteries and getting his glasses, he looked at the cd and said “That Mr Cate must be a great principal” then went on to say that the only thing that’ll save the world is creativity and the arts. When he took a closer look at the cover of the cd (an aerial photo of 400ish kids and staff standing in the shape of a peace sign) he got up and declared, “gotta get something for you”. He ran up to his loft, climbing a vertical ladder with books piled everywhere (he’s 93!) and came down with 200 bumper stickers that read “Coexist”– you may have seen it– it’s lettering made up of various spiritual symbols together including the peace sign. Having seen the cd cover he ALSO had to tell me the story of the peace sign and how it was born from the letters N and D of “Nuclear Disarmament”.
Of course the night wouldn’t be complete without a few songs so when he saw that I had my mandolin with me, he suggested we should play. I was itching to sing a yodeling song I learned from him years ag0– the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Way Out There”. What fun.
So, I am now left to happily give all my 3rd , 4th and 5th graders each a “coexist” bumper sticker presented by Pete Seeger on the eve of the international day of peace. I am willingly obliged to carry on a message of peace to the children of Symonds School. How lucky I am.