Pete Seeger, Photograph by Bruce Davidson / Magnum
In 1955, I’d been hired at a camp in Massachusetts as the associate waterfront director but a hurricane wiped out the waterfront leaving me with nothing to do. The camp director, knowing how much I loved the arts, suggested I go to a Pete Seeger concert in a venue near Jacob’s Pillow, about 20 miles from camp. He thought my depression was about the destruction of the waterfront. I didn’t disabuse him. I didn’t want anyone to know I was feeling bad about not hearing from my boyfriend, worrying that he was probably seeing other women. I hated the teacher’s college I was attending—I chose to go because I didn’t think I was smart enough to apply to liberal arts colleges. I hated what I was studying. I had no friends. At 19 my world felt filled with misery and disappointment, a lot of which I didn’t know how to fix or change.
I hitched a ride to the area where the concert was to be held, arriving too early to do much except buy my ticket and wait for the hall to open. I found a soft mound of earth shaded by a huge oak tree and sat, watching people, mostly couples and small groups, move through the area, feeling alone and unlovable.
I was too deep in misery to notice the man walking toward me until he was close enough for me to sense his presence. I looked up and saw a tall, skinny man with a banjo strapped across his chest. That looks like Pete Seeger, I thought, but why would he be walking over to me?
He knelt down and said, “You look like you could use a friend.” I nodded, realizing it probably was Pete Seeger, feeling ashamed and embarrassed. “You look like you could use a song,” he said. “Never found a time when a song didn’t help.” I nodded again, too shy to speak.
“Mind if I sit down?” he asked. I nodded, feeling stupidly mute. “Mind if I sing a little tune?” he asked. I nodded again, thinking I should say something but no words would come. He took his banjo off and cradled it against his body.
He started singing the song, “How can I keep from singing.” I knew the words and began to softly sing with him. Some people heard and gathered around us. Suddenly there were a lot of people standing and sitting around, singing with Pete. He grinned at the ever-increasing numbers of people, singing the song several times with increasing enthusiasm and passion.
When he finished, people clapped and asked for more. “Well,’ he said, “I have to get ready for the concert. Hope you all will join me. We’ve got lots of singing to do.” He looked at me and said, “Don’t we.”
I found my voice and said, “Yes, we do.” As he got up to leave, I said, “Thank you so much.”
“You feeling better?” he asked. I nodded. He chortled. “Told you. Never found a time when a song didn’t help.”
I watched his tall lanky frame disappear. He was right. Nothing had changed. Yet I did feel better. A lot better.
Have you had an experience where a song changed how you felt? What is the power of song?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.