New York has a chance to honor an American hero
If there is a single human being who has most exemplified courage and decency in this country, it is Pete Seeger, the legendary father of the American folk music movement. His songs have become the songs of America, from “Turn Turn Turn” and “If I Had a Hammer” to a good deal of “We Shall Overcome.” The man everyone knows as Pete has always pointed this country in a better direction. On May 3 he will be honored at no less a venue than Madison Square Garden on the occasion of his 90th birthday. This is a man who eschews the spotlight but on that day, he will allow himself to be honored to raise a lot of money for the Sloop Clearwater.
Not surprising, since he has done more to save the Hudson and all our rivers than any other person, alive or dead. Because this event is to benefit the Sloop Clearwater, the symbol of the Hudson’s regeneration, Seeger has agreed to be honored. Musical luminaries like Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, the Dave Matthews Band and Arlo Guthrie will all perform, paying homage to Seeger and his work. I’ll be there and trust me, my eyes will be wet as this 90-year-old who lived through the terror of Joe McCarthy and his ilk will get a small part of what he is due from all of us.
On the few occasions at which Pete has accepted honors, it has been because he knew he was doing it for all of us who love him and not for himself. He came very close to turning down the Kennedy Center Honors but those closest to him insisted that he participate, if not for himself than for the rest of us. The same thing happened when he and Bruce Springsteen did that final number at the Obama inauguration, backed by his grandson, Tao, and a chorus of the kids that he loves so much and considers a “Bridge to the Future.” After all, many of us got to know Pete back in the 50s, at summer camp when he came to visit or on a college campus. Those were the days when he and his legendary group, The Weavers, were blacklisted. They weren’t allowed on radio or national television shows because of their alleged leftist leanings.
To put it mildly, Pete Seeger’s generosity knows no bounds. He has sold so many records that he could live in a mansion of his choice but he and his incredible wife, Toshi, his true partner in life, chose instead to share a small cabin overlooking the river he so loves. Pete at 90 is an inspiration. He embodies the best in all of us and represents the idea that we can make a better future for ourselves and our children. I believe that Pete will be here for many years to come but we now have an opportunity to create a lasting legacy that will remind our kids and their kids about what Pete Seeger stands for.
Through our federal, state and voluntary dollars, an old railroad bridge linking greenway trails on both sides of the Hudson River is being restored. It will be one of the most important and unique parks in New York state. This “Walkway Over the Hudson” should be named for Pete. It’s that simple. The idea came to me in the form of an e-mail from a guy who just wanted it to happen. I had been thinking the same thing and the moment I began to talk about it, the chorus of people in favor of the idea grew to a deafening roar. I live in dread that the phone will ring and there will be Pete, insisting he doesn’t want this honor and telling me to cut it out. I hope that I have the fortitude to tell my hero that this idea is bigger than any one person. He is Pete Seeger and while he is a human being like the rest of us who still goes into his woods with an ax and chops wood to heat his house, he is far more than that. He embodies an ideal that includes lessons in citizenship; human rights and dignity; preserving our environment; and great and inspirational music. Ask anyone, including Congressmen Maurice Hinchey and Paul Tonko, Governor David A. Paterson, Environmental Commissioner Pete Grannis and the state’s top environmental official, Judith Enk, what they think of Pete and you’ll hear wonder in their voices.
This one is from all of us in gratitude for a great man who has made us proud. If you agree with me, write to anyone who you know to make sure that this bridge, celebrating the quadricentennial of old man Henry Hudson’s trip up the Hudson, is named for one of the greatest of all Americans, Pete Seeger.
Originally Published in the Legislative Gazette, 4/24/09