In case you haven't heard, Pete Seeger died this morning, in the dark night of the soul around 3am. I can't say I was surprised to see the news all over my Facebook wall (he was 94 after all) but I am grieving. It goes against my every authorial instinct to say this, but...We lost a piece of America today, a living embodiment of some of the best things about our past century: the civil rights movement, some of the earliest days of recorded folk music, the environmental movement, nonviolent resistance (he was one of many on McCarthy's blacklist). I think, because of this, it's easy to think of him more as an ideal than as a man. Even if you're one of the many people who had the fortune of meeting him.
In my own Pete Seeger Story, Pete was actually more of a role player. Over Thanksgiving of 2001, I had my first out-of-town visitor after September 11, my friend Sara. I'd spent much of the previous couple of months robotically going to my market research job on 25th Street, looking south out the big 12th-floor picture window at the big empty space where I'd watched both towers fall with my co-workers, and having two or three panic attacks a day. Downtown had been partially reopened for the holidays, and my cousin Walt invited me and Sara to join the walking tour he was giving with Shorewalkers, a nonprofit group that holds various walks (they call them "saunters") around the city. This was, if I'm remembering correctly, their first walk through the downtown ruins around Ground Zero. I was just as interested in seeing Walt himself, for only the second time since he'd led his entire floor down and out of the tower where he worked, escaping with them just minutes before their tower collapsed.
When we arrived Walt said, "Looks like Pete came out." I shuffled through my mind, trying to think of what Petes he knew. Then a man who looked maybe seventy years old walked up, looking snug and spry in his outdoor gear. "Good day for a walk, Walt," he said. Walt introduced us to him. "It's very nice to meet you," he said, then began walking briskly ahead of us.
That was all the conversation we had, because he spent the rest of the walk well ahead of the rest of the group. Sara, Walt, and I walked along the downtown riverfront in silence, past buildings with all their windows blown out, hundreds of Missing Person photos with phone numbers to call if they were found, and military ships in the harbor surrounding it all. All the time, in the distance in front of us was the vague silhouette of old Pete Seeger, ingesting it all in solitude, undoubtedly integrating it into his own mythology that had already been shaped by some of the grandest transformations in our young nation's history. I think we all felt a little safer, more secure in our future, with that figure in front of us.
Reading Arlo Guthrie's tribute to Pete on his Facebook page this morning, I think about seeing Arlo at Castle Clinton in 2009 with my wife and daughter when my daughter was only a couple months old, and about Arlo's dad, and the way all of them - Pete, Woody, Arlo - have shaped my own personal mythology. And I know Arlo said it best at the end of that Facebook post:
"Well, of course he passed away!" I'm telling everyone this morning. "But that doesn't mean he's gone."