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When I was growing up, I wanted to be Pete Seeger.  I loved the songs, the harmonies he drew out of people, the banjo he played, the way he brought people together and got them singing.   My mother made me tapes of some of his concert albums, and I listened to them over and over again.  I learned every song.  And when I sang, I used to look up into the air and shout out the high notes, just like he did.  It was a real disappointment to me when my voice changed and I discovered I wasn’t a high tenor.

To be honest, I still want to grow up to be like Pete.  Through the years I have learned as much from him – through music, writings, the example of his life, and the few conversations we shared – as from anyone else I can think of.  Yes, he was a musical genius – I found that out the first time I sat next to him at a People’s Music Network Gathering and heard his impromptu harmonies and counterpoint – but he was also a deeply thoughtful, ethical man who made it his mission to bring people together.  In his courageous testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he said,

I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life.  I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody.

Pete attached every bit as much importance to a performance for a classroom full of children as he did to one at Carnegie Hall.  He got people singing with each other and listening to each other, and he taught generations of us to do the same.

I won’t pretend that I knew him well.  If the people who have mentored me in music are the children of Pete, I am a grandchild, influenced as much by the music he inspired in others as the songs he performed himself.  In recent years I had the privilege of working with him on some projects, and through that work we shared a few conversations.  Our interactions were almost all over the phone, and I always felt privileged if he called, or if I happened to reach him on a day when he felt like talking.

And oh, what conversations they were.  I used to take notes, which is not something I would normally do – but there was so much wisdom in everything he said that I knew I didn’t want to let it slip away.  He talked about community and the connections people of different cultures were able to make with each other, more and more across the world, and how much hope it gave him for the future.  With typical modesty he never once mentioned that he was a pioneer in making those kinds of connections; I don’t think it even occurred to him.  He said that if the human race survives another hundred years, it will have been the arts that saved us – music, visual art, theater, dance, and especially laughter.  “If we can get the whole world laughing,” he told me, “we can move the world along.”

Pete was a Unitarian Universalist, and I’m sure he is one of the reasons I went into the UU ministry. It wasn’t anything he ever said to me – instead it was the lessons I learned listening to those records and singing his songs.  I learned to care about ordinary people, to value freedom and justice, to work for what is right no matter how daunting it seems, to bring people together, to listen and value the voices of others.  I learned to respect all people, no matter who they are and where they come from.  I learned the value in a story.

Last week, my six year old son came back from school telling me they had talked about Pete Seeger and sung his songs.  He knew some of the songs already, of course, and had often listened to the CD of Pete’s Children’s Concert at Town Hall, or some of the music that Pete helped to influence.  Whatever direction his own life and music take as he grows up, he’ll be part of another generation touched by the musical and spiritual gifts Pete gave to us.  And what a gift that is.

In an interview for BeliefNet a few years ago, Pete was asked if he thought there was an afterlife.  He said,

Well, you might consider this. When Toshi and I had our first child who died when it was only six months old, I was in the army, my father wrote me and said, “I don’t think I could cheer you up in the usual way. But remember this, that something good that has happened can never be made to unhappen.” That’s a nice way of putting it, don’t you think? Something that has happened can never be made to unhappen.

Pete’s life was unquestionably good, and it can never be made to unhappen.  Knowing that brings comfort and tears.  They are good, healing tears, and when they are done, Pete will still be with us – in the ways we sing, the work we do for justice, the care we take of this old brown Earth, and the community we live with one another.

Rest in peace, Pete.  Thank you.

 

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Note – the video doesn’t play directly from the blog, but does from YouTube.  Click the link and watch it; you’ll be glad you did.

Veteran’s Day can be a challenging observation for those of us in the peace movement. As a committed pacifist, I deplore all war. The very existence of armed conflict is, in my view, the most colossal and self-defeating waste of resources ever devised by humanity. At the same time, I recognize the sacrifices of women and men who have gone to war – some voluntarily and some not so. I’ve seen minds damaged and families destroyed by the aftermath of battle. I’ve seen good people walking around with physical and emotional injuries that will never show. And I cannot help but honor these women and men, not because of the injuries, but because of the sacrifices they made out of love of country. I may not agree with the need for those sacrifices, but I surely honor the people who made them.

Utah Phillips once said that the way wars can end is when soldiers start talking about what it was really like. He has said that his time in Panmunjom immediately after the treaty was “absolute life amid the ruins.”

On today’s Morning Edition, National Public Radio’s political commentator Cokie Roberts talked about the effect of fewer veterans serving in Congress. “You see it in debates about taking the United States into military actions where you don’t hear the voices of those very experienced veterans.” I wondered how eager politicians would be to enter wars if more of them understood it better.

I’ve always appreciated A. L. Lloyd’s Seamen’s Hymn. In its brief simplicity it captures both the honor of sacrifice and the cruelty of war:

Come all you bold seamen
Wherever you’re bound
And always let Nelson’s
Proud memory go round.

And pray that the wars
And the tumult shall cease
For the greatest of gifts
Is a sweet lasting peace.

May the Lord put an end
To these cruel old wars
And bring peace and contentment
To all our brave tars!

There are several videos of performances of “The Seamen’s Hymn,” but to my ear this recording from a pub sing captures it best. This is how the song should be sung – by the people, often and loudly.

On this Veteran’s Day, may we honor sacrifices made in war, recognize its cruelty, and join together in prayer for the greatest of gifts – a sweet lasting peace.

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Last night folk music lost one of our dearest friends. On October 24, Faith Petric died at the age of 98. She had been performing up through the last few years. (You can see videos of her performing Geritol Gypsy and You Ain’t Been Doing Nothing If You Ain’t Been Called a Red.) Faith was a mainstay of the San Francisco folk community and a mentor to hundreds, if not thousands, of musicians.  Here’s a link to a lovely remembrance by Stephen Taylor.

At 98, it would be hard to call Faith’s death unexpected, but it’s a huge loss. I met Faith when I was fifteen, producing a benefit concert for the homeless at my high school in conjunction with the People’s Music Network conference that year in Washington DC. Being fifteen, and from the east, I’d never heard of her, but she was invited onstage by the other musicians. She had the most inviting personality of any performer I’d ever seen. Without any artifice, she led us all in Jerry and Bev Praver’s song, “This Old Man Should Go Back Home.” It became a staple of my repertoire for the rest of the Reagan administration.

Years later, Faith donated her beautiful recording of If I Could Be the Rain for a CD I produced, Singing Through the Hard Times – a Tribute to Utah Phillips. She was as gracious and warm as ever.

I was in touch with Faith only a few times since then, but I’ve always felt a warmth, admiration, and kinship with her. The world is a little sadder tonight for her loss.

Goodbye, Faith. It was a pleasure to know you.

Note:  This post was updated with a couple of corrected details on October 31.

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On Monday I posted an open letter to Michelle Shocked in the wake of controversy about remarks she made at a San Francisco concert.  That letter has been viewed about 1300 times so far, easily a record for this blog.  On Wednesday evening Michelle Shocked released a statement denying any intention to spout homophobia, saying that her remarks were misunderstood, that she was describing the opinions of other people, and that her statement about tweeting “Michelle Shocked hates…” was a prediction of how she would be misinterpreted.  She says that she supports the LGBT community and marriage equality.  Included in her statement:

“I am damn sorry. If I could repeat the evening, I would make a clearer distinction between a set of beliefs I abhor, and my human sympathy for the folks who hold them. I say this not because I want to look better. I have no wish to hide my faults, and  – clearly – I couldn’t if I tried.”

I am glad to take her word for what she meant to say.

The same evening, audio from the concert has been released.  (The relevant part begins at 4:40.)  To be honest, it’s really hard to say what she was trying to get at.  Members of the audience seem confused as well.  In my letter I tried to be very careful to speak from a place of concern, rather than judgment.  Hearing the audio, I remain concerned.

Here is the full text of her statement.

And here is my original post of the open letter responding to the initial news reports on Sunday, with the update added at the top.

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Update – 11:46pm, March 20:

This evening Michelle Shocked released a statement denying any intention to spout homophobia, saying that her remarks were misunderstood, that she was describing the opinions of other people, and that her statement about tweeting “Michelle Shocked hates…” was a prediction of how she would be misinterpreted.  She says that she supports the LGBT community and marriage equality.  Included in her statement: 

“I am damn sorry. If I could repeat the evening, I would make a clearer distinction between a set of beliefs I abhor, and my human sympathy for the folks who hold them. I say this not because I want to look better. I have no wish to hide my faults, and  – clearly – I couldn’t if I tried.”

I am glad to take her word for what she meant to say.

The same evening, audio from the concert has been released.  (The relevant part begins at 4:40.)  To be honest, it’s really hard to say what she was trying to get at.  Members of the audience seem confused as well.  In my letter I tried to be very careful to speak from a place of concern, rather than judgment.  Hearing the audio, I remain concerned.

Here is the full text of her statement.

And here is my original post of the open letter responding to the initial news reports on Sunday:

Dear Michelle,

We haven’t met.  Or rather, we have, twenty years ago, but it was rather fleetingly backstage at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and you wouldn’t remember.  That was the year that you sang “Kumbaya” and reminded the audience that “Kumbaya my Lord” meant “Come by Here, my Lord.”  You were right, by the way – that song was always meant to be an invocation to the Divine.  I interpret that word differently than you do, but you were definitely right about the origin of the song.  Maybe I’ll write about that some other time.

You’ve made some news recently, and for no good reason.  Your comments at a recent concert that you fear the world would be destroyed if gays were allowed to marry, and that your fans could all go tweet “Michelle Shocked says God hates f–s”) – well, they lived up to your chosen name.  It’s not even so much the views you decided to express, as the venue, and the manner of your doing it that has left so many of us outraged, speechless, and also worried for you.

I mean it.  Because a rant like that, in the place you chose, speaks of profound spiritual pain.  It is one thing to believe that homosexuality is wrong; many do.  I disagree, but it remains a widely held belief, especially among adherents to more conservative religious movements.  These are your views, and you have every right to express them.  But to phrase them as hate speech – and it was you who brought up the word “hate” – at a concert in San Francisco, of all places, speaks of deep inner turmoil.

Your words are not those of a woman comfortable in her own skin.  They do not speak of the strength of your faith, or of your idealism, or of your values.  They seem spoken more to reassure yourself and the world that you are not, in fact, the bisexual woman you once believed yourself to be, or the lesbian so many of your fans believe you to be.  They seem an attempt to claim an identity and hold on to it, when so much both within and around you threatens to pull it apart.

I don’t know if this is really what is going on.  Maybe you just don’t like people making assumptions about you as a person or an artist.  I get that – I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister as well as a folk musician, and I’m always afraid that people will stay away from my concerts because they think I’m going to preach at them (more than folksingers usually do) or that I won’t be able to get away with singing one of the saltier old ballads, because some folks can’t separate the music from the musician.  I’d like to just be me, and sing the music I love.

You’ve got it far worse; I understand this.  And you don’t want anybody else – not a record company, not a manager, not your fans – to tell you who to be.  And maybe you’ve got some things you believe in that you want to say.  That’s fine.  But before you say them, please let me suggest that you spend some time in prayer.

Yes, I said prayer.  One of the most powerful teachings of your church is that ordinary human beings can commune with the divine – and you need that.  You need to step away from the whirlwind of public and private identities, of fear and anger and self-doubt.  You need to let go of all of that for a while.  If you’re going to speak the truth of your soul, you need to be grounded.  So pray, and read the Bible that you place your faith in.  You won’t find hatred there, but you will find a Jesus who spent a great deal of time with people who were and are considered “sinners,” and who nevertheless respected them as human beings and as his friends.  Pray – not for absolute answers, but to still yourself and open yourself to the God of your belief.

You hurt a great many people with your comments, not least yourself.  But maybe this experience can move you forward.  Maybe it will help you find the right people to talk to about your spiritual crises.  Maybe it will help you ask for help in your emotional life.   You said yourself that “truth is leading to painful confrontation.”  Maybe the truth is your own spiritual crisis, and the confrontation is with yourself.

I don’t know, but I do know this much.  The only way to respond to hatred is with love and compassion.  And Michelle, though I don’t know you, and I detest everything you said at that concert – you have my love and compassion.  I offer you that much.

After all, isn’t that what Jesus would have done?

Love,
Dan

PS:  I still love Short Sharp Shocked, and always will, no matter what you say about anybody.  That album is brilliant from beginning to end.  Would that any of us could reach such heights of artistic genius.

Note:  Please remember the guidelines for comments in this blog.  As my friend at Sermons in Stones puts it, “Disagreement is welcome; disagreeableness is not.”  Comments that are not civil, or that express hatred for any person or group of people – including religious groups as well as the LGBT community – will be blocked.

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Three years ago a powerful earthquake in Haiti devastated an already suffering nation.  The world sent aid, but not nearly enough, and Haiti has largely receded from the consciousness of the world.

Shortly after the earthquake, I helped to plan and lead an interfaith service at the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, in Warrington, Pennsylvania, where I serve as minister.  Hindus, Christians, Jews, Unitarian Universalists and others gathered, raised awareness, prayed together, and most importantly raised funds to help Doctors Without Borders in their Haitian relief work.

We also sang together.  Haiti Cherie is one Haiti’s best known and best loved songs, and tells a different side of the story from the one we usually hear – this is not the Haiti of grinding poverty, oppression and violence, but of beauty, courage and community.  This is the Haiti of an African people who overthrew their European slaveholders a full sixty years before the American Civil War.  This is the Haiti of joyfulness and music.

It’s an easy trap to fall into – we imagine that the lives of people living in a place like Haiti are entirely defined by suffering – and somehow that lessens the impact of the current calamity.  But real people’s lives are seldom like that, and it’s important to remember that we, who would give our help, do so because we are privileged and we are able, but not because we are better or because our lives and nations are somehow set above others.  The Haitian people recognizes the ills their country has faced, and the far worse problems brought by the earthquake, but they are also proud of their country, and with good reason.  We would do well to learn from them.

I learned Haiti Cherie for the service, doing the best I could with the Creole, using an English translation from a  recording by Harry Belafonte, and adding a fourth verse (“you are never lost to sorrow”) written in the wake of the earthquake’s destruction.  When we came back to the first verse, I lined it out for the people gathered, and four congregations sang it well and loudly.

This recording was done rather hastily that week – I had a bit of a cold, so I won’t pretend it’s the best recording I ever made, but it may be one of the most heartfelt.  The link should take you to the song.  Enjoy it, and if you can spare a little, donate again to earthquake relief.

Dan Schatz sings Haiti Cherie

(NOTE:  Pleased ignore any video ads below – they have nothing to do with the post or this blog.  The link above will take you to the song.)

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(annoying ad below)

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Today is the second anniversary of the mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, in which six people lost their lives and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head.  In the intervening years we have seen similar shootings at an Oakland, California college, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and, most horrifically, a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school.  Sadly, the actual list is far too long for me to recount – the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence lists over 70 mass shootings since Tucson, and that only tells a small part of the story.  Every day in the United States, gunfire kills 87 people – 8 of them children, 5 of those murder.  That’s over 100 Newtowns every year, and most of us don’t even notice it.

After the Newtown shooting last month several gun control opponents cited a mass stabbing in  China, correctly pointing out that no amount of gun control could not prevent violence or keep someone whose heart is bent on mayhem from committing it.  In doing so, they made the case for gun control far more effectively than I could have, because of the 22 children stabbed in that assault, not one died.

Guns do not cause violence, it is true – but they make it far more deadly and dangerous.  Suicides attempted with guns do not allow for second thoughts.  Violence committed with guns – especially with automatic and semi-automatic weapons – kills.  Too often it kills the innocent.  I understand the desire for freedom, for protection, for recreation.  I understand that the overwhelming majority of gun owners are decent, law abiding people.  But 2000 dead children every year is too high a price to pay.

It is also true that gun bans will not by themselves immediately fix the problem.  Our laws have been so lax, for so long, that the guns are readily available for those who would obtain them illegally.  Buy back programs help, but it will take a long time to solve the problem we have created for ourselves.  In the meantime, licensing can help, waiting periods and background checks can help, keeping the most dangerous guns limited to sporting facilities can help, and education can help.

Tom Paxton often writes what he calls “short shelf life songs” – songs in response to world events that he doesn’t expect to be relevant once the news cycle has shifted.  Two years ago he wrote “What If, No Matter” in response to the shooting in Tucson.  Sadly, the song remains all too relevant.

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