Pete Seeger has been part of my life ever since I was very young, and my parents played the Weavers singing “Good Night, Irene” to signal it was time for me to go to bed. I’ve been to a few of his concerts, but I only remember meeting him once.
Back around 1982, my attempt to be a full-time freelance writer was flagging badly, and I was in a training program to become a sign language interpreter. I volunteered to be an interpreter at the Clearwater Festival that year — but when I got there, I wasn’t in a very good mood. I had just failed my final exam (my interpreting skills were excellent, I was told, but my language skills didn’t make the grade), and I told the volunteer coordinator that I would prefer not to do any stage work, since my skills weren’t up to that. She promised that I could just do standby work at the medical tent and information booths.
Well, that didn’t last long — an hour or two later, I was informed that they were short-handed, and that I was going to have to interpret for at least one stage performance. “Don’t worry,” I was told. “It’s a bunch of banjo players; so you’ll just have to do introductions.”
Yeah, it was a bunch of banjo players — doing a workshop, so it was an hour of people talking about banjo technique. I tried to keep up, but was completely overwhelmed; the only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that, at the same time, the National Theatre of the Deaf was doing a performance at another stage, so the chances that my services were actually needed were little to none. It didn’t help that, after the performance, a bunch of hearing people who obviously hadn’t a clue told me what a great job I had done. I felt completely useless.
That night I was camped out in the volunteer section and wondering how I’d make it through the weekend when Pete Seeger came by with a couple of other singers. They sat by the campfire and just sang two or three songs and then he told us all how valuable our contributions were, no matter what we were doing. I had grown up listening to his records and so he was something of a legend to me, but he spoke directly and sincerely. He believed it, and so did we.
After a while, he and the other singers moved on to the next area in the volunteer section. I stopped nursing my bruised ego, and started enjoying the festival and just doing the best I could under the circumstances.
Pete Seeger touched thousands of lives, and will continue to do so.