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Saturday, February 1, 2014

Be Like Pete

Greenwich Village, 1958. Sky's place.

I first heard “We Shall Overcome” at a party, picked out by Pete Seeger, who I’d follow anywhere, tell you the truth. He learned it from the civil rights activist Zilphia Horton. I know it was first composed in 1903 by Pastor Charles Tindley, and people kept on teaching it to each other. 'Course, Pete changed it up a bit and added a banjo part.

I taught the kids to sing it, along with a lot of other songs, because who else has the time? Sophie’s mom is at work, Nell and Gary are working too, and Gordy’s parents are always busy. Besides, I’m the teacher—at least, they want me to be.

Don’t know that “We Shall Overcome” is one of Ruby’s favorites—she and Sophie like the Lead Belly tune “Goodnight Irene” a lot and “The Hammer Song.” (Ray won't tolerate folk songs for more than 30 seconds, so we tend to leave him be.) I want ‘em all to know more than the music, though, and I tell ‘em a lot of these songs are what you call protests. Against war, waste and cruelty.

I think they get it, too. When they joined up with the protesters across the street, Blu and I were so proud. Watching them march around saying “Ban the Bomb!” did my heart proud; I just wish the police hadn’t swooped in so fast. Course they were after Ruby for something else, but I’m still proud of her.

Blu and I talked a lot about the Bomb; what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I know sometimes when we talk about history the kids start getting bored, but they listened real close to what happened in Japan. We read John Hersey’s book Hiroshima too—and they’re still talking about it.

You know Mr. Seeger’s dad was a conscientious objector during World War I, don’t you? Meaning he sat that one out. Pete was drafted in 1942 and served in the   South Pacific, mostly performing for the troops. Lives upstate now, and one of these days I’m going to take the kids to see him sing.

House on Un-American Activities went after him in ’55, of course, accusing him of being a Communist. He put ‘em in their places though, refused to answer their questions, and they cited him for contempt. I told the kids about that, too. I want them to know you have to stand for something. That’s what Pete Seeger does, and he stands tall, come what may.

I think they understand—at least Ruby does. Of all three, she’s the one I’m closest to. ‘Course you’re not going to tell ‘em that.

See, a lot of Beats around here think all they need to do is  hide away on Bleecker Street, write poetry or paint or whatever. I’m with the side that says we have to change things, make things better for the ones who will come after us.

I want Ruby to keep writing her poetry. But I want her to be like Pete Seeger and John Hersey, too. I hope she will be.

--Skylar M.
Blue Skies Owner
NYC