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.