"Pete has always been unafraid to stick his neck out and say what
he believes in," says Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the folksinger and fellow Guthrie protégé.
"Pete has been the single most important force of inspiration and courage to several generations
of peoplemusicians and their audiencesbecause he gave them the spirit and the courage
to go out and protest against the war."
Pete Seeger is, in many ways, the Reagan of the left: a sunny idealist,
amiable and grand fatherly, unyieldingly devoted to a few simple ideas, a nostalgist whose
worldview often seems frozen in the era of his own coming-of-age. He's a polarizing figure
who incites deep loyalties among his fans and equally deep antagonism among his detractors. Unlike
Reagan, though, Seeger is still among usindeed, fighting with renewed zeal. At the same
time, he is up against more than Bush, the military, and the conservative establishment; he is confronting
his own legacy and his mortality.
It is a coincidence that the river town from which Pete Seeger has long
served as a guiding light to progressive activists is called Beacon. He and Toshi, his wife of 61
years, have lived on a few acres of wooded hillside overlooking the Hudson since 1949, when
Seeger began clearing trees with an ax he'd been given by a leftist youth organization. With
instructions he found in the New York Public Library and some help from hardy young admirers, he
built a log cabin now occupied by one of his six grandchildren, the musician Tao Rodriguez Seeger.
He later added a hodgepodge of connected ante-buildingsa kitchen that's more like
a small house, a barn/studio, and a two-story loft where the elder Seegers live and work today.
Peering between garments drying on a set of clotheslines drawn between elm trees, Seeger gazed
out at his view and shook his head. "There used to be a beautiful 19th-century village down
there," he said. "It has been ruined by the scam of urban development. After a while,
an oil company constructed a big tank along the banks of the river to provide fuel for the developers,
and today there are dozens of the things. They seem to be propagating."
Seeger tends to function, now as ever, from a well of deep, politicized convictions
about how things ought to be. In his campaign against the ongoing American military presence in
Iraq, he works daily in his office on the second floor of the loft. There, on an afternoon in June,
he made and fielded calls to and from DiFranco, Dar Williams, Holly Near, and Guy Davis, all of whom
had agreed to perform at this year's Clearwater Festival. While the complex business of planning
the two-day event transpires at Clearwater's home office in nearby Poughkeepsie, Seeger
has always been the festival's de facto leader and the steward of its creative quotient.
"I'm up to my ears with Clearwater, and I'm also involved in various other festivals,"
said Seeger, sitting at a gray steel desk built decades ago for use in the corporate world. The mere
sight of Pete Seeger at an office desk is unnerving; it seems like digital trickery, like an image
of Dick Cheney at a hoote-nanny. "I've found that festivals are a relatively painless
way to meet people and make a few points that need making, without having to hit them over the head
with too many speeches."
Seeger picked up the receiver of a red,'60s-vintage desk phone nearly
buried in his papers. A lesser-known folksinger from Southern California was calling to offer
his services at Clearwater. Seeger was grateful, he said, but the schedule was full. So many people
are so fired up these days that there's not enough room to present them all, Seeger explained.
In fact, he joked, he wasn't sure if there would be room to go onstage himself.
After the call, Seeger leaned back in his chair and returned seriously
to the issue of his own performance. "I probably shouldn't sing at all," he said.
"My voice is gone, I can't play like I used to or like I want to, and I get awfully tired awfully
quick." All afternoon, he had been carrying a small plastic bottle partially filled with
water from his well. Now he slowly unscrewed the lid and lifted the container to his mouth with two
hands, the left to steady the right, which was trembling.
"But I believe that there are things worth saying, especially
nowmore now than ever," Seeger said. His speaking voice was dry, and it quavered when
he spoke up. Still, his eyes were piercing behind his oversized glasses. "We're in a
very dangerous situation. The problems in the Middle East are not going awaythey're
getting worse. Churchill said, anybody who thinks, when they get into a war, that they know what's
going to happen, is fooling themselves. With all the power that the American military establishment
has, they still cannot predict all the things that are going to happen.
"The shortsighted people say, We know how to solve the problems.
We get the proper explosive in the right place, and they'll learn.' I say, All
they'll learn is how to be violent.' To quote Martin Luther King, the weakness of violence
is that it always creates more violence. Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.
"Things could hardly be worse, and it's not just
Bush," Seeger said. "He's got a whole gang there behind him, and they control the
media. Some people say that this is how Hitler took over. But we can fight this. Let me show you something."
Seeger walked down from his office loft, went outdoors, and headed around
the building to the side of his barn. There, an inscription from William James is painted in large,
white block letters on the high, red wall. It reads, in part: "I am done with great things and
big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny invisible molecular moral
forces that work from individual to individual...."
"When the Vietnam War ended and there were no more huge demonstrations
in Washington," Seeger said, "a lot of people thought, Well, I guess there are
no big things happening now.' I believe the big thing now is many small things. The fact that
many small things are going on is the big story. I think that there are probably not hundreds of thousands
but maybe millions of people like me who are working for peace and work- ing to get out the votebut
doing it in a lot of small ways, instead of one big way, and I'm convinced that that's the
best way to do it.
"This is a very basic philosophical point that I'm trying
to make. When you're facing an opponent over a broad front, you don't aim for the opponent's
strong points, important though they may be. Pick a little outpost that you can capture and win.
And then you find another place that you can capture and win it, and then you move slowly toward the
big places. Look at Martin Luther King. People wondered, Why is he worrying about sitting
at the back of the bus or having a seat at lunch counters? Why doesn't he go after schools, housing,
voting, jobs?' He took on sitting on a bus, but he won it!
"That's my philosophy now. The festivals I'm doing
this summer are a perfect example. There may only be a few thousand people at each one, but we can reach