It was a year before Kennedy's assassination that my Father thought it would be a good idea I see Pete Seeger in concert. He said Pete was the most respected folk singer there was and since I listened to & liked Peter, Paul, and Mary and The Kingston Trio, I should hear the person who was at the forefront of the Folk revival of the 60's. Since my father was a jazz and classical musician, it was uncharacteristic of him to show any interest in styles of music other than those he performed. As an eleven-year-old avid radio listener, I was fascinated about the prospect of whom I was going to see.
When we arrived at the auditorium I was excited as we began walking to the entrance. We were faced with a demonstration against him with people carrying placards stating, "Seeger is a communist" and "Seeger is un-American." My father reassured me it was OK to go ahead and that these people had a right to their opinion, but he did not agree with them. Then Pete came out on stage as buoyant as he can be, ringing out a banjo tune as he walked. He had a sweater on and looked like a laborer. When the song was finished, commented that it was too warm for the sweater and proceeded to remove it, revealing the brightest of red shirts! The audience howled, jumped to their feet and applauded as he went on with the show, singing an old union song. I never forgot the exhilaration of that moment and how amazing it was to see this person who threw his head up to the sky as he sang out to all of us. The many times I have seen Pete since, he has been a pied piper, who has never failed to enchant his audiences as he delivered his challenging messages, appealing to the most honorable aspects of our capacity to be humane. His ability to elicit a sense of hope about the future and self always inspired me with an urgency to be active to make my corner of the world & situation better. Call him a socialist a communist, poet, musician or story- teller, he is perhaps the on of the world's quintessential activists. Pete asks us all to be in the struggle to make it a better world by showing compassion to our community and to the earth. As a psychologist, I have found myself referring back to him as often as any of my former professors or teachers. Pete's credibility seems to transcend politics, philosophy or science. Perhaps, he personifies what can happen when a human being maintains hope in adversity, restructures his thinking and helps those around him to do the same.
My first personal contact with Pete came in 1971, when I became the "news director" for an underground radio station in Gainesville, Fla. I held that position by default because of the 'stoned' apathy and indifference of the other DJ's. There was a need cover to a significant trial taking place in Gainesville that summer: The Viet Nam Veterans Against the War "conspiracy to disrupt the Republican Convention." I interviewed the likes of William Kunstler, Angela Davis, Phil Ochs, and Pete Seeger, among many other anti war activists of the day. Pete, however, showed a particular interest in me personally and offered to talk to me several times that weekend. He took me to breakfast at a greasy spoon near the University and asked me what I wanted to do with my life. At the time, I was clueless. He proceeded to tell me how his life took twists and turns, but encouraged me to keep hope for my future. He gave me his phone number and address and asked me to let him know how I was doing from time to time. I have done just that over the past 29 years and never failed to get a response from him that was welcoming and encouraging.
When Art Freeman and I began to write our book on Depression for Psychological Corporation/Harcourt Brace, we outlined the different elements that are associated with mood including the body and biochemistry, emotion, activity, situation, and thinking. Art said that's the BEAST! We were on our way with a metaphor and an acronym that gave us a way to conceptualize the therapy into something more than just "theory and technique." And I remembered Pete's song and story about the beast, Abiyoyo. In Pete's rendition of the story, this creature called Abiyoyo scared everyone in the land until a small boy and his father charmed it into disappearing with music words that reflected the ogre's name. Like depression, if you confront the symptoms and face the BEAST, you can tame your own monster.
I learned Cognitive therapy from Aaron Beck when I was a fellow at his Center at the University of Pennsylvania. One of the first things I remember him saying to me was that I could learn all the techniques there were and still not be effective as a psychotherapist. Unless a relationship of trust and respect was established, the book knowledge of methods would probably not be effective.
Pete Seeger can reach almost any audience and get them singing along. I have seen him accepted by liberal and conservative alike, country and city folks, rich and poor, religious and agnostic, and people from every corner of the world. He is mesmerizing with stories that evoke the child in almost everyone. But as he warns, lullabies & stories for children are propaganda to get them to hear the message and distract them from negative behavior. Whether it's a bedtime story to invite sleep or a political story to inspire communities to organize and take control of their lives from those who would take away their freedom and rights, Pete has taken his banjo to the task. It says on his self-made banjo "This instrument surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." Any therapist who wants to help get a person to listen to more than their negative flow of thoughts and motivate them to transcend the troubles in their lives has a lot to learn from Mr. Seeger.
Please know the many significant honors that have been bestowed on this 81-year disarmingly modest old troubadour. In 1994, he received the nation's highest artistic honors at the Kennedy Center for his lifetime contribution to the Arts. This seemed particularly ironic for a man that Joe McCarthy and the HUAC attempted to destroy. At those Senate hearings of the 50's, Pete pled the first amendment (and consequently cited for contempt and sentenced to prison). Pete has showed us that dignity and conviction can win in time.
With the recent accolades in mind, lets go to some history that Pete made. Raised by politically active parents (his father was a musicologist and mother was a violin teacher), Pete took the banner of radical politics that flourished in the depression and became a spokesperson and organizer for the oppressed. In 1938, he dropped out of Harvard to travel with people like Woody Guthrie, the Almanacs, and later, the Weavers. As a matter of fact, the Weavers, was a group that had the top selling popular songs in the country until the blacklist and HUAC ended Pete's commercial career for almost 8 years. He never gave in or gave up hope.
Although his original ambition was to become a journalist, he went where the wind blew, a metaphor he frequently uses about life. The wind can blow one way but actually move you in another, and like sailing, you can use the wind in the wrong direction and still get somewhere you want to go.
Whether it was labor unions, the poor, unfair bureaucracies, war protest, or the protection of the environment, Pete seemed to be there before the rest of us knew a problem existed. I appreciate him as a lifelong teacher and like many who attended his concert at the 2000 APA annual meeting, I felt tears of joy to see a true mentor on stage again.
We Shall Overcome: The Complete Carnegie Hall Concert June 8, 1963 (Pete is back after the blacklist at the beginning of the civil rights movement, introducing songs by both his pen and the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Tom Paxton, helping start their careers).
If I had a Hammer- Songs of Hope and Struggle (Clinical Psychologists take note- the struggle of labor under unfair management)
Pete Seeger Live at Sanders Theatre, Cambridge 1980 (Perhaps one of the last live recordings in full voice. A loving view of the lessons of life and aging with lots of humor)