This past Sunday ranks as one of the most musically meaningful days of my life, with two separate experiences in two different parts of the state. It began at the first annual “Summer Hoot” festival at The Ashokan Center nestled in the Catskill Mountains. The festival took place the whole weekend, and my husband’s band, The Zucchini Brothers, was part of the Sunday lineup.
As The Zucchini Brothers were setting up on the main stage, a gong ensemble was shimmering on the stage next-door, setting the tone for the day.
Everyone in the audience was either seated or lying down meditating under a brilliant blue sky.
I joined them once I got my spot set up. After the gong ensemble finished, I wanted to take a picture of just the gongs and didn’t realize until I got home that night that Pete Seeger was in the picture!
Next, the Zucchini Brothers played a set on the Toshi Stage, named in memory of Pete Seeger’s wife who passed away last month at age 91.
After the Zucchini Brothers finished breaking down after their set, the stage was prepared for Pete Seeger while Elizabeth Mitchell and Dan Zanes played next-door.
The crowd filled the sprawling lawn in anticipation of Pete Seeger’s set. This is a man who, at 93 years wise, is a national treasure. His musical activism for social and environmental justice is legendary, and he and I share a deep love of the Hudson River. In the 1960s, he gave concerts on the riverside to raise funds to build the sloop Clearwater, which led to the birth of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., a non-profit environmental organization. His activism was vital to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Hudson River PCBs Dredging project going on in front of our house as I write is a direct result of Clearwater activism. For a number of years, I attended the annual Clearwater Festival with The Zucchini Brothers, who were among the performers. I remember seeing Pete Seeger walk around the festival always surrounded by a small group of people hanging on his every word. This was even the case in the performer’s food tent. This was before we moved to the riverside and developed a personal connection with the Hudson River. At the Clearwater Festival, there were signs everywhere in favor of dredging, and that was my introduction to the Hudson River PCBs dredging issue. I wasn’t aware of how controversial it was until I moved to the riverside, and local opinion was in stark contrast to the Clearwater position. Now that my family and I make our home on the river, my respect for Pete Seeger has deepened. I am grateful to him for working so hard to care for the river and its people and ecosystem, and grateful that the Clearwater organization continues his legacy of environmental activism by reviewing the dredging data and drawing attention to shortcomings of the project in the interest of restoring the river to its full potential.
Pete Seeger’s performance at Ashokan was perhaps the most powerful and moving musical experience I’ve ever been a part of. He looked so feeble walking around behind the stage before the show, but the profound strength of his gentle presence wove a spell over the entire audience once he took the stage. He made his way across the stage to a standing ovation, but when he got to his microphone, he told everyone to sit down because he wasn’t there to see us stand and cheer for him but to hear us sing.
Pete Seeger’s presence was pure love and joy. He seemed to be so free of ego and so full of wisdom, humor, peace, and hope for humankind. He was so much more than a musician performing on a stage. To me, it seemed he transcended being a musician playing to an audience and was the music itself. And the music flowed through the entire audience, making us music, as well. He and the audience were connected and united as one beautiful energy flowing and transcending our sense of individual separateness. When he spoke from the heart about his wife’s final moments in her earthly body as she slipped quietly into death, the audience was transfixed, barely breathing. It was a sacred moment.
I have heard friends describe what it was like to be in the presence of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You just know when you are in the presence of a master soul, and I knew I was in such a presence at Ashokan that afternoon. Pete Seeger elevated the energy of the entire audience. It was incredible, masterful. Although my husband and I had another concert to drive to and had talked about leaving midway through Pete Seeger’s set, there was no way we could do that when the time came. We were part of something profound. As excited as I was to get to our next show, the thought of leaving never entered my mind. Here is a brief video of him leading the audience in singing his song, “Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There is a Season)” from the late 1950s. It was the perfect response to the words he spoke about the passing of his beloved soulmate, wife, and partner.
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Can you feel the energy we were all a part of? The unity? The sacredness of it all?
He ended by singing “Quite Early Morning” with the audience singing along and repeating the lines:
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows.
And then, after all the applause, he left the stage, and the musical spell was broken, but a deep sense of peace, hope, and love remained under the incredibly beautiful blue sky that afternoon. It was truly awesome to be a part of it.
The next show we went to was very different from the Ashokan experience but was hands down the most fun concert I’ve ever been to, and so the magic continued in a different way. In fact, I think the energy space I entered at Ashokan had a direct influence on my experience later that day at Damaschke Field in Oneonta watching my favorite band, America, perform. An incredibly scenic, mountainous, blue sky drive linked the two events.
We arrived an hour and a half before the show – much later than I originally had intended, seeing as tickets were general admission, and I wanted a good seat. The parking lot was swarming with aging baby boomers, and the gates already had opened. I felt disappointed upon realizing we’d probably end up sitting quite a ways back. Many people carried lawn chairs in, although we had left our blanket in the car, assuming it was stadium seating on the bleachers. But once we got inside, we saw that a huge tent had been erected across the field, and that’s where the stage and seating was located. I followed my husband to the front of the tent, right up to the stage and was quite astonished to find two seats in the second row that weren’t taken!
The first rock concert I ever attended was America in 1977, when I was ten years old. I saw them the next couple years as well and developed quite a crush on Gerry Beckley, one of the two remaining founding members. In a previous post, I mentioned that I was able to meet and “interview” him and his partner, Dewey Bunnell in 1979. The time they gave to me won them a fan for life. I hadn’t seen them perform in person since the early 90s. So, needless to say, I was thrilled to land a seat right up front, with my camera and tripod!
Normally, I’m not a dancer. I tend to be quite shy like that. However, throughout the whole America concert I was completely free and totally allowed the music to flow through me (when I wasn’t taking pictures). When they sang one of my very favorite songs, “Riverside,” my exuberance drew Gerry’s attention, as you can see in this brief clip:
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I credit the Ashokan energy, along with my lifelong love for the band America, for liberating me into a place I probably never entered before at a concert. By the end of the show, my husband and I were right up against the stage dancing with a small group of diehard fans. I am so glad I didn’t bring either of my teenagers along because they would have been completely mortified. Actually, my daughter probably would have understood and found it amusing.
It. Was. Awesome.
I have never had so much fun at a concert, completely losing my self-consciousness and letting the music move me. The musical experiences of that day seemed to grow on each other and liberate me – so much that the next day, my husband and I sang together for the first time in years. Now, I was a musician early in life but gave up playing piano due to stage fright and acute self-consciousness. I got caught up in performing being about me and how people would view or judge me, rather than being a conduit of musical energy. My performances came from a place of ego, rather than a place of flow. I did experience flow when I practiced on my own – and still do on the rare occasions when I sit down to play – but not on stage. And not even in a practice room when I knew anyone else was around and could peek through the window and see me playing.
My husband, on the other hand, is a professional musician. Whereas I was mostly about technique – reading and interpreting music on a printed page – he is all about improvisation and expressing his authentic musical self. He can step out of the way and let the music just flow through him, making it look so easy and natural. I always have admired him for that. We have tried on a few occasions to play together, but I just couldn’t let go and let the music flow – even with him! I was too concerned with technique.
So, it was exciting to sing with him last night, and again today. It seemed that the Ashokan/Pete Seeger experience and the America show opened me up in some way, and I hope that door will remain open because I love inhabiting that dimension again. Perhaps when a door opens like that, you need to seize the opportunity and run with it because it only stays open for so long. I am grateful to the door openers, for they are helping me to recover a lost part of myself.
Yesterday, I went to the cemetery for the interment of my dear friend David’s ashes. As I experienced Pete Seeger’s concert the day before, I thought about how much Pete’s energy and the light in his eyes reminded me of David – especially the last time I saw David alive last fall. Here were two men who let the light and wisdom shine through so brightly. Two vehicles of light, love, and wisdom. Pete Seeger is a musician and activist, and David was a teacher and author. On the way home from the interment, I thought a lot about how important it is to use our talents in service of others. Give the best that you have, and you make the world better in some way. Some people – like my deceased grandmother – are generous, and their special talent is knowing what to do to help others and doing it. Others teach or do applied research or care for people’s bodies, minds, or finances or write or make art. The list goes on and on. It doesn’t matter what we do as long as we let the light shine through. When we can step out of the way and be an instrument of that light, magic happens. We become healers without even knowing it.
America’s music has spoken to me all my life, and even though they must see the same scenario repeat itself night after night after night – after 43 years of heavy touring – I can’t help but think that it must feel good to see people loving their music so much and being so moved by it. It’s a really beautiful thing to see the smile you bring to someone’s face and to know that your work uplifts them in some way and makes them feel good. Often, we don’t get to see the positive effect we have on others as clearly as a musician playing to an audience. But when we are centered enough to be our best, authentic selves, we are always planting seeds.
When a musician is performing on stage and interacting with an audience, s/he is not thinking about the state of the music industry. Nothing truly worthwhile would flow through if that were the case. You have to be centered and present in the moment and do your work. Something to keep in mind as I switch gears and begin focusing on teaching again.
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