The following is a guest post from cartoonist Bill Day, a two-time winner of the RFK Journalism Award in Cartooning. His cartoons are syndicated internationally by Cagle Cartoons, where this post was first published.
Pete Seeger’s passing this week brought back a flood of memories and more than a trickle of tears. In the mid-seventies, out of college and with no job, I decided to move to New York City and try to find some work. I had a small amount of money saved which wouldn’t last long, but mostly I had a wealth bravery. This small town Florida boy, whose roots were in southern populism and the civil rights movement, packed all his worldly possessions into his subcompact car and headed north on I-95. I had never been there, didn’t know anyone, and had no other plan other than making it happen.
I still recall my first view of New York City as I crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge – INCREDIBLE! Given the name of a person to contact, I found a small room near Pratt College of Art in Brooklyn. From there I located the subway connection into Manhattan and exited at West Fourth Street and Washington Square. This would quickly become my home.
With a portfolio of artwork in hand, I luckily found some freelance work. At night, I would hang out at the cafes in the West Village. My hope was to find some political friends. Before long, I found myself immersed in political discussions with a wide array people. One evening a new friend kindly handed me a ticket to a Pete Seeger concert at New York University’s auditorium. What fabulous luck! I loved Pete Seeger. I had dozens of his song floating in my mind at the mere mention of his name.
Arriving at the auditorium early, the friend who gave me the ticket introduced me to a couple who knew Pete. After a wonderful conversation with them, the concert began.
I cannot begin to tell you what a moving experience it was. All of these people with strong political beliefs that often collide, were together in the unifying presence of Pete Seeger. Everyone started singing, when invited, as he sang ‘If I was a Hammer’! It was followed by one wonderful song after another. His storytelling then led to another song. His final song, which he dedicated to Woody Guthrie, was ‘This Land is Your Land’. Happiness filled the auditorium and love was everywhere. People were singing as loud as they could. I became overwhelmed by all the joy I was hearing, seeing and feeling. Tears often rolled down my cheeks. I had never experienced anything like this before. I knew then that THIS was why I had moved to New York. It was to hear Pete Seeger sing at NYU.
After the concert, the couple I had met earlier invited me to meet Pete. They could see how moved I was by this experience. I was, however, overwhelmed by all of it and too shy. I was not in control of my emotions and too out of my element to accept their invitation. This small town Southern boy was afraid of making a fool of himself among these sophisticated and gracious New York people. What if I should become inappropriately maudlin after what I had gone through? To this day, I regret not having accepted their kind offer.
Years later I heard him sing again in Detroit, this time with Arlo Guthrie. Detroit, with it’s strong labor movement, was a perfect venue. Everyone was singing and Arlo reveled us with his ‘Alice’s Restaurant’. Imagine…Pete singing with Arlo, the son of Pete’s long-time friend, Woody. Again, the final song of the evening was ‘This Land is Your Land’ with Pete, Arlo, and Detroit all singing together at the top of their lungs. I lost it.
There are few people in this world with such generosity of spirit as Pete Seeger. Only special people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Herbert Block, and Pete Seeger possess this rare talent. It is their the ability to transcend race, class, and the pettiness of narrow-minded thinking. Using their genius of music, oratory, art, or selfless giving, they bring us together for a greater purpose. It is a beautiful gift.
I miss all of them, and now I miss Pete. I am eternally grateful he lived in my lifetime.
Damn, here come the tears again.