We were sat well back, almost up in ‘The Gods’, as we called the highest stalls in theatres. There was me, ‘Jack’ Handley and Ron Boyd, the hard core trio that formed ‘The Clevelanders’ folk group, from Darlington. It was late 1963, if my memory serves me right, and Jack had driven us up to Newcastle to the Flora Robson Theatre for a folk concert. There was only one act, there only needed to be one act that night – Pete Seeger.
Pete was on his world tour – to get an idea of what he played and sang, try to get a hold of his CBS recording ‘We Shall Overcome’ at Carnegie Hall as part of that tour. He inspired me that night and the inspiration has stayed with me for over 50 years. I still have that LP; I still have a copy of his book on how to play the 5-string banjo. Whenever energy flags, his is the voice to turn to, in order to recharge the batteries.
When I heard the news today that Pete had died, for once I was not moved to tears, big as that loss may be. This is a time to celebrate a wonderful life and a wonderful man and his enormous legacy.
There are many stories about him that demonstrate flaws in his character, but one of them was never inconsistency. You knew exactly who he was. What you might not see, because he didn’t show it, did not matter. For a shy man, as it is said, to have led such a public life, to have faced down the House Un-American Activities Committee like he did, to have suffered the violence of the right wing mobs at Peekskill like he did, to have built an environmental movement against some local hostility in his own backyard persistently and generously over decades like he did, to have been standing there when it mattered like he did – well, what more inspiration to shy, timid people can there be?
Some people have criticised him for staying loyal too long to the Stalinist CP-USA and for not speaking out against Stalin’s evil deeds as outspokenly as he might. He chose rather to focus on doing positive, hopeful things for change for a better, more peaceful world. Some like me also spent time in the CP in the 60s until the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and, frankly, compared with the alternatives I have since experienced, there was more freedom and more opportunity to speak out in the YCL and CP then than in most of the Trotskyist and (allegedly libertarian) socialist or anarchist sects purporting to represent the alternative – bar none. So, let’s move on from that dead, old argument and get ourselves out of the dustbin of history until we find our way again. We have to build the movement anew, from the roots.
And, if you want inspiration on that journey, listen to Pete singing and I defy you not to join in. He certainly got us singing up in Newcastle on Tyne back in 1963. As the title of his autobiography (How Can I Keep from Singing?) implies, maybe singing is as good a place as any to start from. I hope that on some cloud, up there somewhere, encouraged by his beloved Toshi, Pete has organised a band of angels.
Sing up Pete, so we can all hear!