I think many people go through life wondering if they’ll have an impact, if there’s some legacy they’ll leave behind. I feel like we sometime struggle with whether we’ll make enough of a difference or we share enough of ourselves that we won’t die and be forgotten. Maybe that’s vain, but I think it’s a natural human response. There are also those who are good enough to rise above that vanity. These are people who know the outcome their actions is worth more than memory of them having done it; they work every day to make the world a better place and try and leave it better than they found it. Pete Seeger was one of those: his continual fight for the common man, to bring to light to and rail against social injustice, and to leave a legacy of conservation ensured that when he died yesterday at 94, he left behind a world widely touched by his music and his work.
Many people may not even know who he is. After all, at 94, he’s not really contemporary for my generation or those behind me. But the influence from his music is so vast and so potent that I’m sure that many people know at least something he wrote. Take a gander at the Wikipedia page about him or this list of songs he wrote and sings. He used music to affect positive change – to inspire people to action, to talk about injustice, to champion the Civil Rights Movement and rail against the Vietnam War. His music allowed him to found the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. with his wife Toshi (who left us last July). Clearwater is an epic conservation and environmental advocacy organization that has helped clean up the Hudson River and serve as a both a catalyst for legal change regarding our waterways and as a source of education.
You might wonder how this ties into a food blog. In my mind, food and music have a lot in common. They can change our mood and be shared with people we care about – we often cook for and sing to those we love; food sustains and nourishes our bodies while music sometimes does the same for our hearts and spirits. Food and music are both shared across all customs, all races, all income levels – we all eat; it’s often done together, and throughout history, we’ve all known music that is woven into our culture.
I truly believe that like music, food is and can be a legacy. People often have strong memories surrounding perfect things that were created in a parent’s or grandparent’s kitchen for holidays, special occasions, or simple Sunday dinners. Like so many of our beliefs, those we have about food are often formed by the thoughts and actions of those who came before us. I believe that everyone should have access to good, fresh, local produce and that good food is worth spending time on and time with because that’s what I grew up experiencing.
My grandmother was the best gardener that I knew who passed much of that knowledge on to her daughters and grandchildren. Some of my earliest food memories are of sneaking up onto the counter in her kitchen to pull off a chunk of brie that was sitting out to ripen or wandering through the garden pulling green beans off the vine and eating them where I stood. Meals never had to be extravagant or expensive, but they had to be good and come from good ingredients. That is so much a part of the legacy that she left behind, that she instilled in my mom who has passed that on to me. Someday, if my husband and I choose to have children, we’ll pass that on to them as well and I know that my cousin (her only other grandchild) is doing that with his own children.
My grandmother’s legacy opened my eyes to food. Pete Seeger’s legacy lies in how he opened people’s eyes through music. Different, but both so important and both of such strong impact to me. One of my friends wrote on Facebook this morning, “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know his songs – or didn’t know how to sing them. I feel like I was born knowing them and that they’re a part of me at a very basic level.” A perfect description of my own thoughts and feelings. In the same way that those before me taught me about good food, my mom taught me about Pete. Oddly enough, food and music became intertwined through Pete as well when he indirectly taught me about composting (a huge food belief that I have that while sometimes really challenging to do practically in NYC, it’s still something that we try and manage as often as we can).
So with that, rather than a recipe today, I leave you with this wonderful and somewhat ridiculous song about what to do in the event of death. It was written by Lee Hays (of The Weavers fame) who taught it to Pete; Pete sang it on the Precious Friend collection that he and Arlo Guthrie recorded together; my mom and I have listened to that collection of music more times than I can count; many of those listenings were on road trips between Ohio and NY to visit my grandma. One of my treasured memories is being able to take my mom to Pete’s 90th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden and introducing my husband to him. All my life really is a circle. Thank you, Pete. And Mom. And Nanny.
In Dead Earnest, words by Lee Hayes, music by Pete Seeger (you can listen to the song via Spotify if you so choose)
If I should die before I wake,
All my bone and sinew take.
Put me in the compost pile
To decompose me for a while.
Worms, water, sun will have their way,
Returning me to common clay.
All that I am will feed the trees
And little fishies in the seas.
When radishes and corn you munch,
You may be having me for lunch!
And then excrete me with a grin,
Chortling, “There goes Lee again!”