The Strawberry Festival of Beacon, New York, takes place on a mile-square
pen- insula along the Hudson River in a park that had been a garbage dump until Seeger led an effort
to clear it for public use. Shortly after eight in the morning on the day of this year's event,
one of the few people vis-ible on the site was an old man shuffling along the riverbank, picking up
trashSeeger, of course. A half-hour later, he was riding on the tailgate of a pickup
truck to get folding tables and chairs. When that work was finished, he decided to rebuild the cinder-block
ovens used to bake the strawberry shortcake that is the event's signature attraction. By
midafternoon, when Seeger was scheduled to perform, a friend asked if he needed anything. "Youth
and energy," Seeger responded, although he had mustered unlikely quantities of the latter
all day through force of will.
Ostensibly a community gathering to celebrate the Catskill region's
agricultural life, the festival has a strong political bent, a result no doubt of Seeger's
influence. Of the many exhibits set up along the waterfront this year, one booth protested capital
punishment, another called for the closing of the nearby Indian Point nuclear power plant, another
was sponsored by Citizens for Clean Elections, and several hawked anti-Bush and pro-peace buttons,
T-shirts, and bumper stickers ("Beat Bush, the Worst President Never Elected").
Seeger began his performance (amplified for the crowd of about 2,000 with
solar-powered equipment) with a loopy, allegorical monologue about mankind's evolutionary
ancestors, the Neanderthals. As Seeger recounted our prehistory, the Neanderthals were finally
wiped off the face of the earth by a weaker breed that organized.
Seeger apologized for the long lines to buy shortcake. "Our ovens
are getting rusty," he said. "I'm getting rusty, too." Clearly fixed on
proving otherwise, he launched in- to a driving rendition of his Vietnam-era narrative of military
obstinacy, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," and then led the assembled thousands to sing
"Turn, Turn, Turn," the Seeger composition derived from Ecclesiastes that
the Byrds made a top-10 hit in the '60s. When he came to the line, "A time for peace,"
he stopped playing the guitar and roared the phrase as he punched the air with both fists. "I
swear," he said firmly, "it's not too late!"
He spoke movingly of the peace vigil in Wappingers Falls, encouraging the
crowd to join him there on Saturdays, and he concluded with the Cuban revolutionary José Martì's
lyrical anthem, "Guantanamera." Seeger sang all the verses in their original Spanish,
then softly strummed the chords on his 12-string guitar as he spoke the final words in English. "The
streams in the moun- tains please me more than the sea." At the conclusion of the song, Seeger
added, "Martì wondered, Now that we are free, how do we protect ourselves from
the evil giant to the north?' Not long after that, he was dead."
A strain of anti-Americanism has always run through Seeger's
work, and he seems unafraid to let it surface these days, as his homage to the martyred radical Martì
shows. A fearless ally of the oppressed who suffer under capitalist regimes, Seeger has appeared
less sympathetic to the victims of communist dictatorships, such as Fidel Castro's. "I'm
still a communist," he says, "in the sense that I don't believe the world will survive
with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorerI think that the pressures will get
so tremendous that the social contract will just come apart."
As Ronald Radosh says, "Pete cannot seem to get past his old loyalty
to the communists. He's never sung a song about the totalitarianism of the Soviets or the horrible
oppression under Castro. But he's quick to criticize the United States. That's his
prerogative, naturallyit's a free country. He just doesn't seem to care for
it very much."
While Seeger holds to his (decidedly un-Marxist) faith that songs can
change the world, there is now debateeven within old-school folk circlesabout what
protest music can actually accomplish. "It is my belief that protest songs are nice banners,
but they don't do anything," says Oscar Brand, a fellow songwriter of Seeger's
generation. "They just inform people that there are others who feel the same way. I don't
believe that songs can change the world. Pete does."
Harry Belafonte, who began his career in the early 1950s as a
folksinger, sides with Seeger. "I think that the role of songs in political movements can
never be overstated," Belafonte says. "Nothing can be said that would exaggerate the
role of music in the civil rights movementand, by the same token, the antiwar movement of
the '60s. It raised people's spirits, it gave them courage, it gave them battle songs,
and it was good for the human soul. Could the same thing happen again? Absolutely!"
In the early 1970s, when Pete Seeger was recovering from surgery for a hernia,
he stopped performing for a year, only to find that the layoff made him feel worse. "For my health,
I know I've got to keep singing," he told his biographer, David Dunaway. "I don't
think I'd live long if I didn't."
On the morning of the first day of the Clearwater Festival, Seeger was
sitting alone under a birch tree, tuning his guitar for an afternoon performance of protest songs.
Every few minutes, a fan would notice him, sneak up, take a snapshot, and scurry away, grinning.
Seeger never blinked.
"When you play the 12-string guitar," he said, as he plucked
a string and adjusted it to pitch, by ear, "you spend half your life tuning the instrument and
the other half playing it out of tune." The line was an old warhorse, but so was Seeger, and he
was husbanding his creative resources for the show. "That's how I've spent my
Seeger zipped his guitar in its bag and stood up to watch the river. He
was standing not 20 feet from the splashboards that lined the bank of the Hudson. The moment seemed
a good one to ask him seriously how he believes he has spent his life.
He stood motionless, gazing at the water. "I've been thinking
about that a lot lately," he said, "and I keep coming back to the first two lines from the
song John Henry.' I think they represent the meaning of my life more than anything.
Do you know them? They go, And before you let that steam drill beat you down, die with that hammer
in your hand.'"
I thought about that for a moment and said, "That's beautiful.
But doesn't it presume defeat? Can you imagine the possibility of prevailing over that steam
drill before you die?"
"Well," Seeger said, still staring ahead at his river. "I
don't know. That's not really the point."