My best poetry teacher ever was a poet named Jack Myers who titled a book, As Long As You’re Happy. Pete Seeger once said, “there’s no such thing as a wrong note, as long as you’re singing.” When Pete Seeger died, I was surprised at how the news hit me—in the gut and made me weep into my morning coffee. When Andrew sees me transformed as someone he once referred to as “a leaky dame”, his love really conflicts with his hard wired impulse to tell me to stop. But he never does tell me to stop and he was really there for me during this latest transformation because he knows one of the things Pete Seeger represented to me was the prevalence of music inside a broken childhood—as important to me as those first books I read in my mother’s library that I couldn’t understand. I read them all for beauty, not sense. Sense was for adults. And I listened to music the way one falls into a dream—completely and unquestioning.
My stepfather was sexually ambiguous and sexually abusive and physically violent. On top of the fact that he was probably queer, married to a woman, my mother, who loved queers. My stepfather’s idea of love was skewed and frightening, but he loved great music and I think it may have been at least one kind of love that kept him from imploding altogether. He also loved music that nobody but him—nobody I knew, anyway—listened to (Paul Robeson, Buffy St. Marie, Billie Holiday, Woody Gutherie and, of course, Pete Seeger). When he brought Pete Seeger records into the house (those old, wonderful, Folkways Records that were made with cover cardboard so thick you could use one as a trivet), we listened to them until one recording—the remarkable “Goofing Off Suite”—had to be replaced. Seeger’s famous for the songs, but “Goofing Off Suite” is an instrumental record where he plays banjo versions of his own music along with interpretations of, as it says on the record’s cover: J. Bach and L. Beethoven. I used to sing those songs in the back seat of the car—especially the title song—because the tune was so unusual that it took my voice to a place it didn’t want to go.
What was so remarkable to me about Seeger though—as I got older and started to understand how art and politics could happen together—was that the music was simply a lens through which through which he was able to see the world in all its complexity and trouble. Like Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, Eve Ensler and others, Seeger’s art was always a companion to the activism—to the really hard thinking. He reminded me again and again that art isn’t made in a vacuum or for a vacuum—that its lasting power is how it draws the world in closer. And when people like him die—people whose lives are so strong and whose ideas are so ecstatic, and whose visions are so pronounced that the world feels as though it has to speed up a little, to catch up to what the vision actually meant. Seeger was, I think, to so many people someone who represented that unflagging hope against despair. It wasn’t just a better world with him in it, it was a better life.