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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November 9, 2013, marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, “The Night of Broken Glass.” It is the night many point to as the beginning of the Holocaust.
I remember observing Kristallnacht in the small Jewish community I grew up in – Flint, Michigan. In Michigan, by November, it’s usually pretty cold after dark. My memories of Kristallnacht services, held outdoors, consist mostly of people huddled together for warmth; solemn readings of prayers and poems; candles lit, blown out, and lit again. The dark, cold night lent itself well to an imaginative child putting herself in her ancestor’s shoes, feeling the cold grip of fear they must have felt as windows shattered and screams sounded and evil went from local to government-sanctioned.
Recalling these events, the eve of the Holocaust, people from all walks of life came together over a brokenness in the world.
Shortly after I moved to Mississippi in 2003, I was invited to attend another sort of memorial service. Several of us drove from Jackson up to Neshoba County, Mississippi, for the 39th anniversary of Freedom Summer, and in particular to commemorate the brutal murders of three Civil Rights workers – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
One black man from Mississippi, two Jewish men from up North, all working for freedom – all killed on a dark, terror-filled night. The memorial service for them took place in a small Baptist church. In Mississippi. In June. There was no central air conditioning, just people crammed together, waving church fans, sweating, crying, singing gospel hymns. The sweltering, singing church lent itself well to an imaginative young woman putting herself in the civil rights fighters’ shoes, feeling the echoes of the evil they faced and the losses their families endured. Though this was my first time at that church, there was something so familiar about where we were and what we weredoing.
Recalling the events, the casualties of Freedom Summer, people from all walks of life had come together over a brokenness in the world.
This November, we mark 75 years since Kristallnacht. This coming June, we will mark 50 years since Freedom Summer.
We are always hesitant to connect tragedies, to link one loss to another, fearing diminishing the pain or significance of either. Facing these two milestones of memory, I find that I cannot – I dare not – compare the Holocaust to the Civil Rights movement. However, I do find that I absolutely can, and will, and must compare the way that both of these events are remembered. Years later, people of different faiths and backgrounds come together, demonstrating by their very presence that they understand this truth about brokenness: Bad things happen when good people do nothing, and what impacts one group impacts us all.
We do not always learn this the first time, but when we come together and remember, our understanding is strengthened. We acknowledge past wrongs and pledge to build something better in the future.
The histories may be different. The weather, the setting, the stories are not the same. But whether we are standing outside and shivering in the cold, or fanning ourselves in an oppressive heat, we come together over brokenness. We remember. And together we say, amen.