Pete Seeger with red cap at center; to his right is honorary Lowellian David Amram (AP web photo by Stephanie Keith courtesy of cbs.com).
Pete Seeger is a 92-year-old wiseman. He knew the symbolic power his participation would carry—a hand-off between old social-justice advocates and young activists and a clear answer to “Which side are you on?”
I have a Pete Seeger story. In July 1971, the summer before my senior year in high school, I took part in the annual Massachusetts Boys State of the American Legion at UMass Amherst. It’s like a Scout Jamboree for student government wonks. That’s the same Boys State that gave us the photo of young Bill Clinton shaking hands with President Kennedy. The big prize is that one guy from each state is chosen by his peers to represent the state at a White House visit. Our Bay State boy-governor that year was John Pothier, who was smart, affable, and smoothly mature. The civics lab includes mock elections for legislative and executive offices. I won a state senator seat.
The Dracut American Legion, Leo C. Roth Post in Kenwood, sent my classmate Dan Wyman and me after we were nominated by our guidance counselor. While we were on campus, the word came down that Pete Seeger might give a concert for us. He was in Amherst for an environmental conference. He was deeply involved in efforts to clean up the Hudson River in New York where he lived. I knew he was an elder of the folk music scene and a bridge to artists like Peter, Paul, and Mary and Bob Dylan. I may have seen him on TV once.
Someone connected to Boys State asked him to sing for us. He must have thought the invitation was wildly odd, given his profile as a peacenik, eco-nut, and former blacklisted communist-party sympathizer. It was 1971. The US would fight in Vietnam four more years. Twelve thousand anti-war protestors had been arrested in Washington, D.C., in May. The Pentagon Papers had been leaked to the NY Times in early June. America oozed social unrest. I later wondered if the concert had been engineered by young counselors on the Boys State staff. One of them was Larry DiCara, who later served as a Boston City Councilor (elected at 22 years old) and is now a Boston attorney. As of 2009, he was still involved in Boys State, which he had been a part of since the late 1960s. The Legionnaires approved the concert, so they deserve credit for being open minded.
One afternoon we assembled in an auditorium for a one-hour performance of some of the most familiar folksongs and anthems of America. Pete Seeger picked and plucked and strummed his banjo and sang in a big voice. He pulled us in on the choruses, all the promising 17-year-olds from Cape Cod to North Adams. I don’t remember a lot about the mock nominating convention and late-night campaigning and balloting in the dorms, but I have a vivid picture in my brain of Pete Seeger’s brand of Americanism playing out in words and music.
The following January I turned 18, which put me in the first 18-year-old cohort to have voting rights. I ran for a seat on the local school committee in the spring, using stickers because I was too late for the ballot, and lost about 4,000 to 400 to incumbent Bernard Bettencourt, who otherwise would have been unopposed. After graduation in June, I joined John Kerry’s congressional campaign as a low-level volunteer, a nasty contest due mostly to the Lowell Sun coverage that became one for the history books. I learned a lot about people in that fierce primary, which we won, and could have worked harder for John in the general election—but my extra effort wouldn’t have changed the losing outcome. Even President Nixon’s campaign henchmen were sent down to disrupt the campaign. I don’t know if the local American Legion would have approved of my early political activity, but Boys State and Pete Seeger reinforced my instinct to speak up.