With graduation hanging in the air, and commencement speakers aplenty littering the airwaves with lofty ideals and canned inspiration, I’ve noticed one theme that seems to be a given for any keynote address: public service. Barack Obama became the highest profile example of this trend last Sunday, when he told Wesleyan University’s graduates “We may disagree as Americans on certain issues and positions, but I believe we can be unified in service to a greater good. I intend to make it a cause of my presidency, and I believe with all my heart that this generation is ready and eager and up to the challenge.”
So the idea, the murky abstraction of public service lodged itself in my brain, somewhere between cold beer and dental hygiene. And that probably would have been that – just another stray thought swirling down the gutter of my mind – until The P and I stumbled across a PBS special on Pete Seeger. I’ve always admired Seeger’s reputation as a radical, but his albums have never spent much time on the turntable. Mick Farren brilliantly sums up my apathy towards Seeger’s music thusly: “It is unfortunate that his voice has such an air of good humour, brotherly love, patience and evangelical fervour that I am almost incapable of listening to him.”
Fortunately, the program that P and I were watching was discussing Seeger’s involvement in helping clean up the Hudson River in the early 1970’s. It seems that at the time, many companies were dumping industrial waste into the river at will, and it had become a toxic mess. In 1968, Seeger and a band of cohorts began building the sloop Clearwater, a 76-foot replica of the kind of ships that had sailed up and down the river for centuries. Seeger’s idea was to take people out on the boat, play music for them, and let them see the environmental degradation for themselves. In this way, he reasoned, they would take it upon themselves to do something about it.
In 1969, the Clearwater made her maiden voyage, and before long people began to take notice of what was going on in the Hudson. Enough people became aware of the pollution, and enough voices were raised over the matter that General Electric eventually paid more than a half billion dollars for the removal of toxic substances.
So at this point in the program, the little old drunk guy that runs the switchboard in my brain connected Thought A to Concept B, and I realized: this is what public service looks like. It doesn’t have to be some photo-op soup kitchen pose, or the equivalent of picking up trash along the highway. Pete Seeger made it look pretty easy: find something you care about and go out and fight for it. Lord knows that this country has enough potholes to fill in. If and when Obama assumes the White House, I’ll have a new model for answering his call to public service.
A Man, A Boat, A River, A Dream – Audubon magazine, March 1971
The Protest Singer: Pete Seeger And American Folk Music – The New Yorker, April 17, 2006