January 31

COMMENTARY: Pete Seeger didn’t push his message — he lived it

Growing up in the folk singer’s hometown showed how small acts of kindness can mean more than political protests.

ICONIC FOLK SINGER Pete Seeger, who died this week, was known as someone who moved mountains, but that’s not really true.

I grew up just several miles from Seeger’s homestead in the down-on-its-luck town of Beacon, N.Y.

Even as a teen with very little interest in politics or world events, I could tell that, in the 1980s, Seeger was not well-positioned to move mountains in our hometown.

People were in a sour mood. The city’s economy was hopelessly depressed; most of the storefronts on Main Street were boarded up, and the massive factories that used to drive the local economy by churning out products like bricks, rolls of tape, rubber rafts and hats, were now empty brick shells.

Economic development was the top priority; peace, cultural education, recycling and economic equality were far down on the list. Besides, the town leaders just plain didn’t like Seeger, the banjo-strumming hippie who lived with his clan in a homestead on the lower slopes of Mount Beacon.

My mother told me town leaders, many of them politically conservative military veterans, saw Seeger as nothing more than a radical communist.

The town’s deep-seated problems and its attitudes toward Seeger seemed like a mountain, impossible to move, permanent.

But Seeger didn’t try to move mountains. He had a political agenda to spread, but he spread it his way. He didn’t lead local protests, or go down to city hall and run for mayor, or try to shove a radical leftist set of town ordinances down the community’s throat.

Instead of pushing his message, he lived it. He kept more or less to himself on his property up on Mount Beacon, sang songs, chopped wood and gave a kind word to anyone who visited.

In conventional wisdom, American politics is a machine, powered by media grabs and shows of force and campaign donations. A suggestion that Seeger’s low-key, happy-go-lucky brand of namby-pambyism is an effective means for change would draw nothing but sneers from most politicians and activists on both sides of today’s political spectrum.

And yet, Seeger has touched more people, in more ways, than almost anyone.

As a teen, I became good friends with Seeger’s grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger. Tao has grown up to become a talented musician and political voice in his own right. He performed alongside his grandfather and Bruce Springsteen at the White House during Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and marched alongside Seeger as part of the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011.

Back then, though, Tao was just a weird kid trying to get along in a public high school where he stood out like a sore thumb. Tall and lanky like his grandfather, with a constant smile, a weird name and a mixed cultural heritage, Tao was an easy target.

Most of us had never spent significant time outside of the state, while Tao had spent nine years of his childhood in Nicaragua.

We lived in run-down neighborhoods with cracked sidewalks, while Tao lived up in the rustic homestead on the mountain, with three or four generations of Seegers and a constantly rotating cast of relatives and family friends.

For that reason, in our close-knit circle of mutual friends, Tao was firmly on the bottom of the pecking order. Because of his differences, we teased him mercilessly, in a way that, looking back now, seems shameful.

But Tao bore it all in the patented Seeger way. He stuck around, refused to retaliate when insulted, and supported us in our times of need.

For me, that was in 10th grade, when I had my own brush with political activism. I became indignant, as teens do, about a school dress code that allowed girls, but not boys, to wear hats. I called on all of my male friends to wear hats to school one day in protest.

What started as a group protest quickly turned into a flurry of capitulation, as boys (who, to be honest, were only humoring me in the first place), complied almost immediately with teacher requests to take their hats off.

Within an hour, every head was bare, save two — me and Tao.

Of course it was Tao. More than any of us, he understood that making a statement is more important than following the rules. More importantly, he saw that I, a person who had been mean to him, needed his support and friendship.

Whether consciously or not, Tao was emulating his grandfather. Over the decades, while symbols of oppression collapsed under their own autocratic weight, Seeger stuck around, responded to adversity with kindness and supported those in need.

And somehow, today, the mountain of resentment toward Seeger in Beacon is gone.

As a new generation of young people grew up, Seeger’s image changed, from that of troublesome activist to something almost mythic, a national treasure.

The city itself has been revitalized; the storefronts are so full of local shops and eateries one can no longer easily find parking on Main Street. Every year, residents hold a strawberry festival on the banks of Seeger’s beloved Hudson River, and he would always come down to sing to the crowds, which grew larger and more adoring each year.

Today, I am regretful of the insults I heaped on Tao. When I think about him, I remember his kind nature, something I am sure was inspired by his grandfather. And I, in turn, have been inspired by him.

That’s the way Seeger’s magic works.

He never would have said that he could move mountains. He might move a rock or two, here or there, and if people liked the way he did it, well then, they were welcome to move a few of their own.

Often, people did. And then others joined in.

And wouldn’t you know it, at the end of the day, with a little kindness and understanding and patience, it was almost as if the mountain had moved itself.

Staff writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at 861-9287, mhhetling@centralmaine.com or on Twitter: @hh_matt
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