Magazine article Monthly Review

Who Was This Pete Fellow?

Magazine article Monthly Review

Who Was This Pete Fellow?

Article excerpt

Pete Seeger was bigger than life. And like a character in a mythological tale, before long his shoe size will grow to such a degree that he will scale snowy mountains and wade across oceans. He will look over the tops of Redwood trees and when he dips his hand down into the Hudson River, the water up to his elbow, his fingers will reach down to the bottom of the deepest pool and pull up a giraffe and a baby grand and we will forever sing about the magic river.

This mythology will be enjoyed by the living for generations to come. A next generation of troubadours will sing deep into the little faces who, with wide eyes, imagine such a music man.

Pete? He may roll his eyes and hope everyone returns quickly to the truth OR he may enjoy becoming part of a new "Abiyoyo," a tale that will sprout banjos of unprecedented size and color and confront the mean fearful spirits of a creature named "houseofunamerianactivitiescommittee"-a wild and inexplicable society of exaggerated creatures with a name so long that only Mary Poppins will attempt its unraveling.

Other mystical visions will dance across the mountain: a Chilean troubadour who nightly passes over the walls of a great stadium and returns to the snow-capped Andes; a Spanish painter who puts limbs and breasts and horses' heads where none have ever been before; an African American contralto who defies freezing temperatures with simply the sound of her voice and invites a nation to put on its Sunday best.

So it will go, until Pete is no longer a man. In truth, we who have come to mistrust our challenging species, feel relief to know that he was not quite made of the same stuff as the rest.

The sweet children left standing on the sides of playgrounds, last chosen for the teams, will find solace in odd stringed instruments and drums made of garbage cans. They will scale rock so as to wander up behind the banjo now carved into the big stone mountain alongside the heads of presidents. They will survive the bully or the drunken uncle by flatpicking "Freight Train" left-handed and right-handed and Elizabeth Cotton-handed and may someday come to ask, "Who was this Pete fellow?"

And because of who they are, they will find the rough edges, the moments of doubt, the facts of privilege, the courage of political conviction, the actor who knew the power of theater and mythology.

In amazement, they will read the disappointed ramblings of aging folk critics who declare, "Pete was the last of the great political folk singers so let's name bridges after him." The children will laugh and, without hostility, they will have the good sense to say, "Really? What about me? I know the same chords. I know how to tell a really good story. Only I am living NOW rather than THEN. And those of us living now are seldom seen until we are invited into that part of memory that is called then."

The shaman children (who can no longer be identified by a color or a gender because, as the new story will soon reveal, everything went all twirlywick) will discover that there are reasons why "Pete Seeger" was even possible. They will toss the story of Pete into the air and watch a thousand red 'n gold leaves from the trees of Beacon land in the shape of notes in the bottom of a tea cup.

Old women with hair the color of glaciers and fingers as long as an ax handle will groan, for although the historic reasons for "Pete" will never return in the same shape and form, never be repeated in his image, the dangerous song will come again. How the women wail! "Beware! The reason for the song will be repeated again and again, for it always has and it always will, for pete's sake."

And the wind comes up singing

With billowing force

Unless the women return, unless the women return

And the moon crosses the sky

Without changing her course

And that is what pete thought, what pete thought, what pete thought......

And the grieving laughter will shriek along the trail of tears, the Appalachian trail, the slave trade routes, the locked windows of the triangle shirtwaist factory, the hanging ropes in the town square ofsalem, the institutions where sane people went crazy, the hidden paths to camps of internment, the hospitals strewn with roses and bodies of people with AIDS and cancer. …

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