Yesterday, I learned that Pete Seeger had died.
I didn’t hear about it first on the news. No, I heard about the passing of the legendary icon and folk singer through social media. A friend tagged me in some photos on Facebook.
The photos were from my college days, when several students at Brandeis had the privilege of learning from and singing with this iconic figure. Mr. Seeger.
I knew that it had been my sophomore or junior year of college, but I couldn’t remember the exact date, so I went digging. I found an old newsletter from Brandeis University’s International Center for Justice, Ethics, and Public Life. That’s where I confirmed the date and context of his concert and residency at my university:
“Building Community through Songs of Social Justice: Pete Seeger and Jane Sapp performed in concert to a sold-out crowd at Brandeis University’s Spingold Theatre on Monday, January 29th, 2001. Student groups performed during the concert: Women of Faith, Songleaders of the Brandeis Reform Chavurah, and Spur of the Moment.”
The memories did not quite come flooding back, but rather began trickling in slowly as I looked at the pictures. It was more than a decade ago. I remembered rehearsing with Mr. Seeger, and with Jane Sapp, an activist and gospel artist. Mr. Seeger was quiet, during the rehearsal; he was frail, even then, and I remember folks being worried that his voice would go out. But he listened to our questions, nodded along, whisper-sang some of the words as we practiced.
There was only one rehearsal when we were all together, as I recall – just one night to run through the basics and the numbers everyone would sing together, and soon thereafter we would be sharing a stage with Mr. Seeger. The man who wrote “If I Had a Hammer.”
If I Had a Hammer, y’all. That’s one of those forever-songs; one of those songs that seem like they just always must have existed.
You don’t get to meet the people who write those songs, let alone sing with them.
I remember being nervous backstage, less so for myself (I was singing with a group; had I a solo, I would have been a puddle on the floor) and more so for Mr. Seeger. He was so slight, so frail at the rehearsal. I was afraid the stage lights and the crowd might knock him over.
But here’s the part of my memory that remains clear: The pure magic of Mr. Seeger in front of an audience.
Faced with the crowd, his eyes lit up. His back straightened. He grinned. He gripped his banjo, and his fingers flew across those strings faster than any normal human octogenarian’s fingers should be ably to move.
“You know the words,” he said. And people did.
And people sang with him. Not just those of us who got to be onstage, but everyone in that room. Everyone. Everyone was singing with Mr. Seeger, and laughing at his stories of traveling with Woody Guthrie and other legends. He’d tell a story, and you’d half expect Paul Bunyan to feature in it. Then he’d start singing again, and so would we. And while he’s no longer here, people will still be singing his words, all over this land.
I looked again at the date of the concert: January 29, 2001.
Exactly thirteen years ago today, I was singing with Mr. Seeger. Today, I’m remembering him. May his memory be a blessing.
This post originally appeared on Beth Kander’s personal blog, and is reprinted here with permission. Like this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Today marks 22 years since the passing of Charles Paul “Chuck” Selber.
In honor of his yahrzeit, and to conclude our three part series on his life and work, we wanted to share his own words, as well as a few words about him.
In his own words
Chuck left behind many words, in the form of letters, essays, and a play called “In Defense of the Committee.” His play was described as “a tragic comedy about gay civil rights, AIDS, religion, sex, government, and medicine.”
It received a staged reading at the Turner Art Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, while Chuck was still alive to direct it. The premise of his play is that an underground coalition of AIDS activists sabotaged U.S. government officials, infecting their children with HIV in order to motivate them to find a cure. An excerpt follows:
Had your brother belonged to any underground or terrorist groups before he formed The Committee
My brother is not a terrorist and The Committee never accomplished its mission as you will hear later. If I had a picture of Laurence’s bedroom with me tonight, you would know my brother like I do. You would see a bedroom that looks like an AIDS Souvenir Shop. You would see a PWA Silver Bracelet to be melted when the epidemic ends. It’s on his dresser. His tennis shoes from the AIDS walk are on the floor in front of the dresser. A sleeve from a designer jeans AIDS jacket is nailed to the wall. His “Torch Song Trilogy” stubs are also on the dresser…
The play is still in draft form, as Chuck passed away before it could be completed.
Remembering Charles Selber
When Chuck Selber passed away, his obituaries spoke to who he was as a person. This one in particular seems to capture his spirit: “Our community is sadly diminished this Christmas Day because of the death of Chuck Selber. The customary phrase is: He died after a long battle with AIDS. The customary phrase is much more a fundamental truth in Mr. Selber’s case, because he carried the battle to the enemy. It was not AIDS that was after him, but Chuck Selber who pursued his for with relentless zeal…”
His memory lives on in the hearts and minds of his mother, siblings, nieces, nephews and all who knew him. His fight lives on in the fight of the Philadelphia Center of Shreveport, Louisiana against the spread of AIDS and for the rights and improved quality of life for people living with AIDS. His words live on in his writing. May we see a final victory over AIDS and may this disease and others be driven from our earth.
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This post continues our December series on the life and work of AIDS activist Chuck Selber.
Chuck was, as his mom Flo Selber puts it, “ahead of his time.”
In Shreveport, Louisiana, in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, the Selber family had a clothing store for men, women and children. Chuck was in charge of the fashion show and included black citizens as models. This was one of many times when Chuck stood up to discriminatory norms.
In 1988, he wrote a letter to his family: “In the event that I, Charles Paul Selber, predecease my father and my mother, I would appreciate that upon both my parents’ death…. [my nieces and nephews] shall be asked to donate volunteer time to a human rights organization other than a Jewish one on a regular basis.”
He was never one who cared only for “his own” group. Chuck was an AIDS activist and a human rights advocate and he often tried to engage others in this holy work too.
Chuck did attribute his deep commitment to human rights to his Jewish upbringing. He was, as he explained, taught to never forget the Holocaust, and to never let it happen again. “I took that Judaic instruction very seriously, and I have based my entire consciousness on it,” he wrote. In addition to regularly attending religious school, Chuck was First Vice-President of the Southern Federation of Temple Youth, SOFTY (now NFTY-Southern), a regional Reform Jewish teen network, and took his role very seriously. He served alongside Macy Hart, founder and President of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life.
Chuck was a writer, and like many writers, he wrote with the goal of bringing about social change. Chuck clearly believed in the power of writing. According to his mother Flo, he was always at his typewriter—feverishly writing. In 1990, he wrote to Dr. Louis Sullivan, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, requesting that he consider certain medical expenses to be approved as itemized deductions. In a collection of his writing, a pile of responses to letters he wrote to people in positions of power demonstrates his commitment to bringing about systemic change.
Chuck used his writing skills, his experience as a director, and his work in the entertainment and film fileds to advocate on behalf of people living with AIDS. He wrote a play, “In Defense of the Committee,” based on the premise that if policy makers were affected by AIDS, the treatment of AIDS would be a greater priority. In the first scene of his play we learn about “the committee” that went around infecting the sons and daughters of politicians with the AIDS virus. The message is clear: when we feel that we are being treating unjustly, we take greater responsibility for bringing about change.
Complacency, he seems to say, is the outcome of having little, if any, connection with the issue. He distinguishes people with AIDS from people who retired and infers that people who have retired receive more generous benefits because every congressman knows that they will be in the position of a retiree one day. It’s inescapable when it’s personal.
Do you have ideas about how to raise awareness among people who are not directly impacted by an issue? What are your ideas?
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