Su Lum: Slumming

Su Lum
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

A few years ago Julie Puchkoff, our teacher at cardiac rehab, asked me who my role models were. The term “role model” is a relatively new one in my vocabulary, coming along about the time that “condominium,” “environmentalist” and “signalize” (as in, “We need to ‘signalize’ that corner,” meaning put a stop light there) entered the lexicon.

“Role model” morphed (another new word) into “mentor,” which we then, as is our wont, turned inexplicably into a verb as well as a noun ” you could be “a mentor” or you could be “mentored” or you could engage in the act of “mentoring.”

I have never been comfortable with the concept, which seemed an onerous burden on the mentors and, all human beings having their frailties, likely to be disappointing to the mentorees.

After a few days mulling it over, I reported back to Julie that if I had to pick a role model it would be Pete Seeger.

I first heard of Pete Seeger when I was in junior high school. He sang with The Weavers, “Irene Goodnight” (a song my parents despised) flooded the radio waves, along with “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” and the astounding Pete-yodeling “Wimoweh,” to this day unparalleled though imitators abound.

That was almost 60 years ago. Pete Seeger recently turned 90 and NPR ran a special on him for its fundraiser, which I watched again even though I own the CD.

After Seeger and the Weavers were blackballed during the MacCarthy hearings (our almost darkest days), they were making a comeback when I was 20, then married to a musician, both of us going to college in Geneva, N.Y. Seeger was giving a concert at Cornell, down the road a piece. The word “groupie” hadn’t been invented, but Gil and I caught a ride or a bus to attend this event and what I remember most was Pete Seeger squatting down before the stage in a big gymnasium, pulling T-shirts and underwear out of his soft-cover banjo case, tossing them onto the floor to get to his instrument.

Surrounded by socks and graying whitie-tighties, Pete looked up, saw that Gil was carrying a guitar and said, “Say, could you give me an A?” They tuned up, the socks, Ts and unders went back into the case and the concert began.

Midway, the power went out. Without microphone or a spotlight, Pete softly sang, almost whispered the song “How Can I Keep from Singing.” At the very end the power turned back on and he whanged into something lively, maybe “Oleanna,” about an idyllic Norwegian village where “little roasted piggies all walked about the city streets, inquiring so politely if a slice of ham you’d like to eat.”

Pete was an egalitarian, a man who spent his whole life trying to make the world better, by stopping war, supporting workers, stopping prejudice and his ongoing cause to clean up the Hudson River. He didn’t care squat about fame or money; he was the genuine article. If “role model” means I aspired to be like him, that’s not true, but I admire him greatly.

I saw him a dozen or so more shows, a great one at Carnegie Hall, some with the Weavers, at gigs large and small. I missed the Weavers’ Reunion, documented in the film, “Wasn’t That a Time.”

The Smothers Brothers TV show was cancelled in the late ’60s after they insisted Pete sing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a protest song against the Viet Nam war. An irony is that after this second hiatus as a spurned performer, the parade passed him by. He went from being too radical for the delicate public’s ears to not being radical enough. Today’s audiences, used to heavy metal and explicit, angry rap music, would wonder what in the world all the fuss was about over Pete Seeger singing “If I Had a Hammer” and “Big Muddy.”