I don’t think of Pete Seeger in the same breath that I think of body image, but Laurie encouraged me to recognize his life and death here, and then it wasn’t hard to find a connection.
He died earlier this week, at the age of 94. I’ve known his music since I was a teenager, been to his concerts since I was in my 20s (so for forty years or more). He always struck me as one of the most inclusive performers I’ve ever known, deeply involved with his audience. He would come to a town, meet with the local folk music club, teach them the songs he was going to do, and seed them around his concerts to encourage other people to sing too. Like most folkies of his time, he would often invite other singers up to share (or take) the microphone for a song or three.
As I wrote elsewhere the day he died, he was an amazing figure of political optimism. I once took a 20-years-younger friend to a Seeger concert, after Pete had lost most of his voice. The friend was astonished by the amount of hope and forward-looking energy in the room, which he had never experienced before, while I was breathing that like air and would not have noticed it. I was busy mourning Pete’s voice and appreciating having his grandson Tao on center stage.
No obituary of Pete Seeger could be complete without mentioning his wife Toshi. Seeger, by all accounts, was a much more admirable political figure than personal figure, and Toshi shared (and managed) his life for decades, putting up with a lot more than many of us would think she “should” have. Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of the founders of the amazing black women’s harmony group Sweet Honey in the Rock named her daughter after Toshi, and Toshi Reagon has become a well-known performer in her own right. Toshi Seeger died in 2013.
So what’s the body image connection? Laurie and I both see access to health as an essential body image issue. Since the late 1960s, Pete Seeger’s core cause has been the health of the Hudson River. In 1969, after reports of the pollution of the river were published, Pete got a crew together and launched the sloop Clearwater to raise awareness and activism.
Up and down the river, sailin’ on
Stopping all along the way
The river may be dirty now, but she’s getting cleaner every day.
The sloop was still followed by the Clearwater Festival (formally “The Great Hudson River Revival”) an environmentalism and music festival still going strong today. I only went once, probably in the late 1990s, but I remember it fondly.
Today, and for the past several weeks, 300,000 people in West Virginia don’t have water to drink. Recently, they’ve discovered they shouldn’t be bathing in, washing their clothes in, or coming into contact with, their water either. The West Virginia government is neither doing very much nor taking much responsibility. Hospital visits and illness are up significantly. People are moving out of the affected area (in the third world, they call this “internally displaced persons,” but we don’t have those in Amurrica, the land of the free market). The company responsible for the toxic chemical spills which caused the problem has gone bankrupt (in a very shady way). You can’t go bankrupt to avoid your student loans, but a corporation that ruins the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people is more protected than you are.
A friend of Laurie’s and mine points out that if folks that we would call terrorists had poisoned the water of West Virginia, the full faith and effort of the U.S. government would be behind fixing the problem. As it is, we’re seeing lots of handwaving and unsuccessful bullshit, while people move, or get sick, or cope hopelessly as best they can.
I want Pete Seeger–alive as you or me–sailing up, sailing down, stopping all along the way. He would be telling the folks of West Virginia that they can, and they should, and he will take this on and solve it. I only hope that somewhere in West Virginia, the next Pete Seeger, the next optimistic activist, the next crowd-shifter, is building a sloop.