Arlo Guthrie liked to rib Pete Seeger for always singing his classic songs twice. Seeger, who died on Monday at 94, was fond of a sing-a-long and often when he performed his favorite tunes he'd give the audience the next verse – mid-song – before it came up so they could sing together. He'd sing a verse, then quickly speak the next verse, and so on. It was all a bit confusing at first, but it was Seeger's way of bringing his audience a little closer to the song and it worked every time.
Seeger's legacy in writing, revamping and reviving American folk music is matched only by his advocacy for civil rights and the environment. He was a brilliant communicator who knew the value of a good symbol. He also loved the English language and its quirks. Performing his iconic "English is Cuh-Ray-Zee" at New York's Carnegie Hall in November, Seeger sang:
You have to marvel at the lunacy of a language in which
Your house can burn down while it is burning up.
You fill out a form by filling it in.
In which your alarm clock goes off by going on.
If pro is the opposite of con, what is the opposite of progress?
Seeger stared down Congress' attempts to paint him as a "red" in the 1950s, famously telling Illinois Rep. Clyde Tavenner, "Sir, I refuse to answer that question whether it was a quote from the New York Times or the Vegetarian Journal."
When he and his wife, Toshi, wanted to draw attention to the industrial pollution ruining the Hudson River in the late 1960s, he hatched a plan to build a sloop and take people out on the water to show them firsthand what was happening to the waterway.
After a slow start – the Wall Street Journal said the first fundraising concert raised $46 -- the vessel, the Clearwater, changed a generation of thinking about the environment, the Hudson and the estuary that flows around New York City. When the Clean Water Act was a bill in Congress, Seeger and friends sailed the Clearwater to Washington to boost support for the measure. The sloop, which sparked the formation of the environmental group Riverkeeper and its offshoots, still sails the river and is considered one of the most successful environment PR efforts ever.
The tributes to Seeger are pouring out in volumes – from President Obama to his fellow musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Bill Bragg – but one potential memorial to the singer seems especially appropriate.
About 30 miles down the Hudson River from Seeger's home in Beacon, N.Y., New York State is pouring an estimated $3.9B into replacing the aging Tappan Zee Bridge. The state has said it may keep the old name – a mash-up of the name of a Lenape tribe and the Dutch word for sea – and it is also considering the sale of naming rights to the span.
I can't think of a better way to honor Seeger's legacy than to forgo the sale of the bridge's name and give it the moniker of one of the state's finest and most influential citizens – one who saved the river below it with a boat, a five-string banjo and the insistence that he sing his songs twice.