Pete Seeger died on Monday. When I read it on my Facebook feed the next morning in bed, my sunken “Oh…” caused Dan to roll over and ask what happened. My sadness was for him, my sweet Pete Seeger-loving husband.
I searched for the gentlest way to say it.
“What?” he asked again, some urgency to his voice now.
A similar thing happened six months ago. I gasped and Dan had said, “Pete Seeger?”
I’d shaken my head---“No, bud. It’s Toshi.”
This time it was Pete Seeger. And Dan and I lay in bed a little longer hugging because of it.
I didn’t really know my husband until he brought me to Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden in 2009. We’d been together eight years by then.
My husband is a shy man. He’s not just introverted, although he’s that as well. I heard a writer say once that she sits inside all day writing alone, occasionally looking out at her husband who works their farm all day alone, and understands that they need the same things in life. In this way, they are together. In this way, Dan and I are together.
But when we do venture out to be around others, he is shyer than I am. It’s a trait that has caused me some frustration over the years. More than once I’ve had to wait for him to drink enough wine in order to dance with me at a wedding. When a waiter comes to our table, h/she often directs all questions my way due to Dan’s deference to me (which often takes the form of a lack of eye contact). He is not rude or remotely unkind, my husband. He is shy. Though there have been times when his shyness has felt to me like withdrawal from the world, cynicism even, and it troubled me. (I’ll also mention here that he is the funniest person I know…and almost everyone I know is funny.)
I remember warning my sisters and friends that they wouldn’t really have a sense of Dan until the third or fourth time they were around him.
Apparently, it took me eight years.
I knew long before that concert that Dan was not just a fan of Pete Seeger’s music, but that he had also been moved powerfully by what Pete Seeger had done with it. What Pete Seeger had used his banjo to do. But I can’t pretend I got it, especially at first. Dan would play “Beans in My Ears” and “Rye Whiskey” on long car rides and I’d beg him to “Please turn off the friggin’ Raffi!”
He’d say, “Do you hear how he’s saying Alby Jay?” and explain how Seeger was singing about Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) not listening to anti-war protestors and I was like, “That’s awesome, now can we please listen to my music?” and then I’d put on Ani DiFranco.
I was 20 (when we started dating) and didn’t know that because of Pete Seeger there was Ani DiFranco. I’ve never considered myself sophisticated or even knowledgeable about music. To a desert island I’d bring a Jackson Five best-of and the soundtrack to A Chorus Line. Despite my poor taste, I can listen to and enjoy almost anything.
But when Dan first introduced me to Pete Seeger, I didn’t get it. I didn’t get the sound. This wasn’t the case with all folk music. Ani’s ferocious striking of her guitar strings had been helping me work through anger since I was a teenager. The sound of Joni Mitchell's voice had helped me figure out what was below that anger.
“Good Night, Irene”? Nothing.
But Pete Seeger meant something to Dan. When we talked about our funerals, he told me he wanted “Well May The World Go” played at his. So I tried to understand.
He told me how Pete cleaned up the Hudson River. How he’d been blacklisted and the FBI kept a file on him. How he still stood on street corners in upstate New York where he lived holding anti-war signs. I still preferred listening to The Sound of Music soundtrack (movie version of course), but I loved how much Dan loved Pete Seeger.
I loved how much he loved teaching me about the music. He told me about Lead Belly and The Weavers and Woody Guthrie. I asked which songs Pete wrote, which ones he sang, trying to get the facts straight. And Dan told me about “Turn, Turn, Turn” (“From the Forrest Gump soundtrack?” I asked) but then explained that it wasn’t just about who wrote what song. That folk singers, Pete Seeger especially, just wanted the music to be played or sung, ideally in the company of plenty of others who would leave their mark or verse on a piece of music.
By then I understood that Pete Seeger was what real heroes are made of and I loved Dan for having such a worthy one. For Christmas I surprised him with a banjo and Pete Seeger’s instructional book on how to play. In the car, Dan would take my hand to his heart after I’d surprise him by chiming in with an “English is Kuh-ray-zee” or sing about how “my get up and go has got up and went.”
I had warmed to it, but I still didn’t understand how Pete Seeger’s music--how the happy sound of a banjo--had been such a powerful tool.
That is, until Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday concert. This is when I got it. When I saw my husband--my shy Dan, whose hands I’ve had to hold around my waist in order to keep him from escaping a hug he’d felt I’d held too long in public--not just clapping, not just dancing, but singing along loudly to the songs performed by Pete Seeger and the 51 other musicians who played that night. Dan’s eyes were like a child’s when Pete Seeger came out. I was in my seat watching the stage when I turned and saw that my Dan was already up on his feet singing. I looked around, wanting to say to someone, “Are you seeing this? He doesn’t do this.”
But of course everyone was doing it. These were Pete’s instructions. That we stand up, that we sing along, harmonize. That we participate.
Dan barely sat during the whole four and a half hour concert. He pointed everyone out to me, my education continuing. “That’s Arlo. That’s Joan Baez. That’s Richie Havens---he opened Woodstock.” My angry (well, “Not Angry Anymore”) Ani DiFranco sang “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” with Kris Kristofferson. And I saw that the night wasn’t about any one musician’s performance--not even Pete Seeger’s. It—he--was about the music and the message. While perhaps not a sloop, something incredible was built by all the voices that came together during that concert. And I finally understood Pete Seeger’s power.
Prior to this, I had struggled to reconcile Pete Seeger’s kind voice and demeanor, the merry sound of his banjo, with the sort of subversive reputation Dan told me he had earned. But that night I understood that it wasn’t just the lyrics and subjects of the songs he sang that had gained him that reputation. His music brought people together and said it was okay—essential--to hope and reach for change and justice. Pete Seeger was dangerous because he believed in people. Strap a banjo around his neck, and this belief spread. I saw it happen all around me that night.
And I saw that my Dan’s shyness was protecting--or maybe just disguising--his own dangerous, hopeful heart. The man singing beside me was no cynic. I learned that for certain that night. He believes in a kind of hope that many are too scared to let themselves feel. He believes in people. He’s shy and he’s as brave as they get.
When I told Dan about Pete dying, he was stunned, numb. I think he thought at first that I was going to tell him that something had happened to Katie and so the loss of his hero, which is of course different than the worsening illness of a family member who lives downstairs, seemed a momentary relief of sorts. And then as Pete Seeger music played through the house for the rest of the day, the sad reality hit my Dan. He didn’t take the day to be alone though. Instead he made an apple crisp for our family, a turkey sandwich for my niece’s lunchbox.
Throughout much of our relationship, Dan had talked about wanting to write Pete Seeger a letter--a thank you--but he hadn’t let himself do it and was worried he would miss his chance. For his birthday a couple of years ago I went to a print shop and had a pad of stationary made up. Around the border ran the words “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it Surrender”--the same words that circled Pete Seeger’s banjo. I set the paper at his desk with a pen and a stamped envelope addressed to a P.O. Box for Pete Seeger I had found online. Dan sent Pete Seeger his thank you.
This is mine.
I have heroes. Dan is one. I believe he could change the world. That he does it every day.
Thank you, Pete Seeger, for showing me that.