on pete seeger and the expression of joy

the devil makes three @ cat's cradle

I remember, very clearly, the Maternal Unit buying the double cassette tape version of Pete Seeger & Arlo Guthrie’s Precious Friend, a 1981 live compilation of Seeger and Guthrie touring together. (Details on the record itself are here.) She bought it at the little record store that used to be on the first floor of Kenilworth Bazaar in Baltimore — RecordMasters, maybe? I remember that we went in several times looking for it, and they may have special-ordered it for her. I remember that she wanted it for Arlo’s version of “The Garden Song”, which became a staple of my childhood.

I remember all four sides of those tapes, which became a staple of my childhood. We listened to it on every road trip we ever took. We listened to it as the Parental Units and I drove across the Midwest looking at colleges. I took a dubbed copy of it to Carleton with me. My senior year, I think, the Maternal Unit found it as a double CD and gave it to me. I listened to it that way on my Walkman riding the bus in Chicago. I listen to it on my iPod still, when I’m driving somewhere by myself, whenever I’m sad — Precious Friend is my comfort music, my favorite album of all time, an album where I know Arlo’s stupid jokes as well as I do the music.

On Tuesday, I was driving home from work, listening to Pete lead the crowd in the title track — “Precious Friend, You Will Be There” — and sobbing like crazy, like you do, and I had a revelation about this album: every track on these recordings is redolent with joy. Pete Seeger understood immensely what joy in music meant.

Seeger’s work and words have long influenced how I think about and make art; his ideas that art and music should do, not just be, and that is in large part because I was familiar with his work from a very early age — I think the Maternal Unit bought that album in 1985 or ’86, and I knew the Weavers, too, because of the Parentals, and as I got older, I read a lot about Pete and Woody, and the Depression, and the unions, and the HUAC hearings, and everything that Pete threw himself into wholeheartedly. (In a moment of coincidence, I started reading Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute, which is a history of the protest song, just on Sunday.) But it wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon, mourning the man and celebrating his legacy, that I realized that Pete Seeger, from the time I was 5, set me looking for joy in art and music above anything else. I don’t know how I didn’t notice.

I have spent a lot of words on Josh Ritter in the last few years; I probably spent a lot more before that, but they aren’t documented. The words I have spent here, though, have used the word “joy” over and over again. Josh remains the most joyful performer I have ever seen; I never had the pleasure of seeing Pete perform live. But I have spent so much time writing about finding joy in live music; if there’s a book of jubilations, we’ll have to write it for ourselves, one of those pieces on Josh quotes. Jubilations. Joy.

As a depressed, anxious alcoholic, there are a lot of days in my life, past and present, were “not miserable” was and is a stretch to reach — where joy is something that is beyond the most difficult thing I can consider, like “getting out of bed” and “putting on pants” and “being a functional human being”. I also know, though, that when I am the saddest, this is the album that I take to bed with me, that I curl myself around and listen to on repeat until I am ready to “get out of bed” and “put on pants” and “be a functional human being” again. It is the album that brings me the joy and the strength to do those things.

And joy is something that we should try to find; more than even happiness, moments of joy are so important. When I photograph musicians, I love nothing more than a moment when someone’s smile breaks wide to hear a crowd sing their words back to them, or throws their hands in the air, helpless. When I take photographs, I am looking for the moments of joy. When I find them, it is a moment of joy for me to make that photo; it is a moment of joy for me to, later, edit it, and share it. I hope that sometimes my work gives the people who see it moments of joy.

When was the last time you were fucking joyful?

Linda Holmes wrote an absolutely prescient piece about Pete’s belief in the power of a crowd singalong at NPR; it’s the single best piece of writing that I have read in the wake of Pete’s death, and there has been a score and then some of phenomenal, moving writing about what Pete Seeger meant to this country. But I think that Linda nails it more than anyone else, as seen in the above performance at Obama’s first inaugural celebration; Pete, the Boss, and one of Pete’s grandsons lead a crowd of hundreds of thousands in “This Land Is Your Land”, and at the last line, on a freezing January day, inaugurating a black president — something that Pete, then 89, probably thought he’d never see — on the last line, Pete leans backs and raises both his fists in joy and protest, as the chorus and the crowd finish the song for him. I have watched that clip probably four dozen times in the last five years, and it never fails to make me weep silently with its power, and its joy. Five years, and the joy that is in that crowd, singing that song, with Pete Seeger in front of them, remains palpable.

I leave you with this; Frank Turner, another one of my most beloved musicians who embodies joy on stage and who believes in the power of a crowd singalong, who believes that music can change the world — see this version of “I Still Believe” live for a huge crowd at Wembley, for example — covering “We Shall Overcome”.

I cried at that video, and it was goddamn motherfucking joyful.

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