by John Colgan-Davis
“Being generous in spirit is a wonderful way to live.”
“If there is something wrong, speak up.”
The above quotes come from singer, songwriter, activist, banjo player, environmentalist, peacenik, guitarist, folk singer, teacher and storyteller Pete Seeger. When I woke up last Tuesday and turned on my computer, there was the word that Pete Seeger had died at 94, and I was both sad and smiling.
I was instantly taken back to my high school years when I was a member of the Central High School Folk Club, and I was being exposed to both the world of folk music and the wonderful intersection between music and movements for social change. I was attending civil rights rallies and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the mid- and late-1960s, and I noticed that many of the songs were the same: “We Shall Overcome,” “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” “Down by the Riverside,” “Blowin’ in the Wind” and more.
And I realized that no rally or march was complete without music that inspired people to sing along and participate. It was the soundtrack and heartbeat of the movements and of the times. And I discovered people such as Pete, who for decades had been singing and teaching and marching and participating with that huge, loving, generous spirit of his. It was a gift for which I will be forever grateful.
I was fortunate to have seen Pete perform a number of times at massive demonstrations in Washington, DC, at folk festivals, at Philly’s old Town Hall, at workshops and even at the World Cafe a few years ago. And he was always Pete; always just exactly the person those quotes would make you think he was.
He was inspiration and role model and gentle teacher. His spirit and that of his kindred such as Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Julius Lester were an important part of my musical upbringing.
If records at the library and far off radio stations and my mother’s LPs were bringing me electric blues, jazz and soul, the Folk Club and the coffeehouses and the rallies were teaching me about the earlier music that led to it all. It was like an incubator, and I (and millions of others) were the result.
We were the next generation to love the music and believe in the spirit of participating and involvement. Thank you, Pete. It is an honor to have seen and heard and been touched by you. And it is an honor to be able to call you an influence.
John Colgan-Davis, a Mt. Airy resident, is a teacher, a lover of the beauty of our area and the awesome harmonica player for the Dukes of Destiny, the area’s hottest rockin’ blues band. On Saturday, Feb. 8, the Dukes will be performing at The Mermaid Inn in Chestnut Hill. Carl Snyder, the band’s keyboard player, will be celebrating two things — being selected a Lifetime Honoree and receiving an Achievement Award from the Lehigh Valley Music Association, and also turning 70 years old!