I met the visionary at Rosie O’Grady’s in Times Square. He looked like a sailor with his knit hat. He appeared to be a vagabond with his banjo slung over his back. I reached out my hand to shake his and introduce myself. He responded by handing me his prized possession, asking me to put it somewhere before he had to go on stage and sing a song in honor of his friend, Judy Collins, who was being honored that night at the Eugene O’Neill Awards by the Irish-American Writers and Artists Association. I was left speechless holding Pete Seeger’s infamous banjo, the instrument that saved the Hudson River.
Little did I know then that I would move up the Hudson to the town he called home - Beacon, New York. There is a park here on the waterfront named after Pete and his wife Toshi. I often walk along the water’s edge at sunset and watch the birds. The river glistens now, reflecting on stories of revolutionaries, hundreds of years before it became contaminated with mercury and raw sewage. Pete moved here at the end of the 1940s, just when the fish began to die.
Where have all the flowers gone, he sang. If I had a hammer, he pondered. We shall overcome, he proclaimed. His lyrics were just like kisses, sweeter than wine. They were powerful yet peaceful ways to protest, uplift, awaken, and unite. Politicians talk, talk, talk, while folk musicians like Pete turn, turn, turn biblical text into hit making songs, enough to get a platform to bring attention to the problems across our communities.
Pete had a vision. Build a boat. If you build it, they will come. And they did. People came to the river. They poured their hard earned pennies into his banjo as he passed it around at concerts to raise money to help heal the Hudson of its poisons. Build a majestic replica of an 18th century sloop and they will come to the river to hear the music, and see the fish swim once again. The “Clearwater” set sail in 1969 and the music festivals continue each year spreading love, good vibes and environmental awareness.
A singer-songwriter. A musician. A banjo player no less! Pete Seeger was one person making a difference. Music uplifts, it unites, it can change the world. All it takes is one single person with a vision, with an idea, to solve a problem. The river was not healthy and he helped make it clean. How extraordinary, this clean water hero!
What problems do you see in your community? What skills do you have to contribute to solving that problem? How can you make a difference? All it takes is a vision. We all have the power to be like Pete.