the day Pete Seeger’s letter came
We were down to the wire. If we didn’t have permission from Pete Seeger’s publisher by the end of the day on Monday, we were going to have to drop “My Voice Alone” (an adaptation of “One Man’s Hands” by Pete Seeger and Alex Comfort) from the CD.
Well, Monday came around, and still no word. I was resigning myself to the fact that this song – which I dearly wanted to have on the record – would have to be cut.
I think it was around noon when I heard a knock on the door. I got up from the floor where I was playing with our then-5-year-old son, opened the door and…
You see, we’d been in touch with Sanga Music for months, trying to get permission to include the song on the forthcoming “God’s Love is for Everybody” CD (this was in the fall of 2002). I had learned the song years before from Chuck Neufeld, who had adapted the words from the original “One Man’s Hands… can’t tear a prison down” to the more gender-inclusive “My voice alone… my hands alone…” This was the version we wanted to include on this project, which was an initiative of Mennonite Church Canada – a collection of new songs I’d been writing, with a couple of covers and “traditional” songs as well.
Our contact at Sanga Music was reluctant to give permission, saying that the lyrical change was too big. I kept insisting – in letters and phone calls – that if he would just speak to Mr. Seeger about it (yes, I called him “Mr. Seeger”), I was confident that Pete would approve. I was a huge Seeger fan, read his writing, listened to (and sang) his songs… and I knew he was all about “the folk process” and was constantly telling people to take his songs and change them, adapt them, add to them… that’s what “the folk process” was all about. Mr. Publisher – if you would just talk to Mr. Seeger about this, I’d really, really appreciate it…
Well, Mr. Publisher was having none of it, and the fateful Monday had arrived…
So when I opened the door, and the mail carrier handed me a parcel – a big parcel – I had no idea what it was. And when I looked at the return address and saw “Beacon, New York,” I nearly fell over. I sat right back down on the floor and tore open the package as fast as I could.
Here’s what I found:
– a handwritten note on a copy of our permission request, commenting on the lyrics (and “the folk process”!) and graciously granting permission.
– another page with another hand-written note, on the back of a copy of an article from the Utne Review, about a community in Colombia learning (and teaching the world) how to live sustainably. (This note included Pete’s familiar encouragement to “Keep on,” and the hand-drawn banjo with his name).
– a copy of his book – “Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Musical Autobiography” – with more of Pete’s hand-written notes on p. 89, listing examples of how others had adapted the lyrics to “One Man’s Hands” over the years.
– a copy of “Sing Out!” magazine, including a CD featuring one of Pete’s then-recent songs, “Take it From Dr. King”
Wow! We had asked for permission to include the song in our CD and songbook, and over the head of Pete’s reluctant publisher, this is what arrived! (The book/magazine/cd were worth about the same as the nominal fee we were asked to pay – $50 – and the notes and insights and encouragement from Pete himself – priceless!)
Amidst the many tributes and acknowledgments pouring in after Pete’s death on January 27, I have wanted to add my own but have been “speechless” until now. The story of my own brief personal contact with Pete is just one more indication of the passion and commitment and spirit of this man who was able to get people singing – and believing, and acting – for the sake of this world’s transformation into a more generous, caring, sustainable, just, peaceful place.
There are precious few role models whose focus is on getting the people to sing (instead of just “listen to me sing”)… whose songs are accessible and singable and beloved for all ages (while retaining a political “edge” and without being stereotyped as a “children’s entertainer”)… who are unapologetic (and, in fact, insistent) about the social function and “usefulness” of their songs (instead of assuming that such considerations are beneath the concerns of “real art”)… whose life and commitments, time after time, decade after decade, faithfully embody the message (and the struggle) of the songs…
Such role models are hard to come by. I’m tempted to say we’ve just lost one, but actually – thankfully – I don’t think Pete is “lost” to us at all.
Pete’s note to me includes this firm-but-gracious explanation and suggestion:
Dear Brian Suderman,
Many people in the last two decades have amended the lyrics by Alex Comfort. Before he died he freely agreed to let others continue “the folk process.” I urge you to consider, though, that any of us can sing a song, and we can hear the freedom bells. But I leave it up to you. I’ve sent a copy of this letter to Sanga, which will give you formal, legal permission. I enclose words others have used.
Pete’s comments are so true and important (and also astonishingly gracious). In fact, for years after receiving this letter, I basically stopped singing this song in public, as Pete’s urging rang in my ears – “any of us can sing a song, and we can hear the freedom bells” – and we must!
Lately, though, I’ve started singing it again – most recently, as the “audition” song for potential cast members of the folk musical “Selah’s Song” (for which Johnny Wideman wrote the script and I wrote the music). Selah’s Song is, in fact, in its own way, an extended reflection on “the power of song” – both for good and for ill – as the King and his advisors scheme about propagandistic possibilities (“… get them to sing our songs and string them right along, I wonder could a song do that?”) while young Selah sings (and the villagers join in) “Maybe a song is just the thing we need… maybe a song can get us on our feet…”
Yes, Pete – any of us can sing a song, and we can hear the freedom bells… and at the same time, I think it’s also true, for me at least, that “my voice alone can’t sing a song of peace”… I can’t do this alone – and thankfully, I don’t have to.
… but if two and two and fifty make a million, we’ll see this world come ’round
We’ll see this world come ’round…
(postscript… while I’m in “copying-handwritten-notes” mode, here’s the thank you letter that I sent on Dec 5, 2002… I’ve re-typed part of it below…)
“… I have to tell you the story of how our 5-year-old responded to your new “Take it From Dr. King” song on the CD. When he first heard it, Matthew said “That’s not a nice song. He said “guns,” and guns kill people.” So we sat down and listened to it more carefully, and Matthew realized the song was saying “drop your gun,” don’t use it, do like Dr. King instead. For the next day or two Matthew kept coming up with ideas and blurting them out:
“You know what, daddy? Maybe we could go and steal all the guns and hide them, and then they couldn’t use them to kill people anymore…”
“Hey, daddy! Maybe we could send them all this CD, and then they’d drop their guns!”
And so on. And I thought – “that’s the way, son. Don’t ever stop coming up with those ideas… we need them.”
In a way that’s my hope for my songs as well – that they can help to nurture and stimulate such creative thinking and participation in “God’s great project” of peace, justice, reconciliation… Thank you for doing that for me and so many people through your music.
As you say, Keep on!
Bryan Moyer Suderman”