Pete Seeger inspired generations to sing, to use their voices, their instruments to spread messages of importance. The music of Pete Seeger has impacted the Eisner Camp community for as long as it has been around. Songleaders in 1958 and songleaders in 2013 played, sang and taught his melodies. One long time camper, staff member and songleader, Matt Emmer, had a incredible and unique relationship with Pete Seeger. Below is his heartfelt tribute.
The last time I saw Pete Seeger was at the Beacon Strawberry Festival. We were sharing a microphone on a makeshift stage on a hill, our banjos facing each other on either side of the mic and the Hudson River in the distance. That’s how I think I’ll remember him. Ninety-four years old and playing a note-perfect solo so high on the neck of that banjo.
My life was changed in the auditorium of Beacon High School. My parents took me, then a classic-rock obsessed 7th grader, to see the incredible double bill of Richie Havens and Pete Seeger. Pete strolled onstage, a mere 88 at the time, picked up his knotty old banjo and stepped to the microphone. The soft melody of “Where Have all the Flowers Gone” wafted over the auditorium. Only, seemingly magically, the sound wasn’t coming from the speakers. One by one, voices from across the room joined in. I was surrounded by sound. Each voice offered its own perspective, exploding the song out of its plaintive acoustic arrangement, it was now telling the stories of everyone in that crowded hall.
That’s what Pete did. He gave us permission to express ourselves, and, in doing so, created a spontaneous community with every note. The true gift of “If I Had a Hammer” was the belief that we could, in fact, sing our song all over this land. When he led “Amazing Grace” in that distinctive long-meter style, with each syllable lasting an eternity, he created that grace. People who “couldn’t sing”, an oxymoron in Pete’s eyes, were suddenly adding complex harmonies and rich counterpoint. Through this approach, Pete created an American epic with every concert, using music from every corner of a country to shape a unique narrative that seemed to reflect the poetry and problems of a nation.
Needless to say, I left that first concert determined to learn that ridiculous looking instrument he so deftly played. At a library book fair I picked up a well-loved edition of his immortal banjo treatise and got to work. The banjo and book became my guided tour through a secret American history, one filled with the hopeful laments of the downtrodden and forgotten. During high school I found myself a member of Pete’s Power of Song group, allowing me access to the man I idolized.
I was able to play with Pete in tiny rooms, concert halls, and on festival stages. I stood next to him in the middle of the night as a group of folk royalty played to a few hundred protesters in Columbus Circle. We tuned our banjos to each other back stage at the Hudson River Revival as he tried to remember the third verse of an Arabic peace song he wanted to teach the crowd. He borrowed my 12 string to play “Turn Turn Turn” for the alumni of the University Settlement Camp, the current home of the Clearwater organization.
Other musicians have “causes”, Pete organized. Now that he’s gone, it’s time for the real hard work to begin. Pete inspired action in everyone he encountered, weather it was with him or foolishly against him, though the he definitely outlasted the doubters. But, until his final moments, he was the reluctant center of the many activist communities he supported.
Now is our chance to prove ourselves, to answer the call of “Well May the World Go” and “Quite Early Morning”. Its time to show the world that we, who learned so diligently at the feet of a giant, can go out into the world and live those values. To prove that cleaning up the Hudson River wasn’t “Pete’s project”, or that preserving a generational tradition of folk music wasn’t “Pete’s music”, or that standing up to the injustices of the world wasn’t “Pete’s fight”. These are our projects, this is our music, and this is our fight. And today, in Pete’s honor and his blessed memory, we claim them defiantly as our own.