Monday, 13 July 2015

A Great American

            I didn’t totally recognize the voice on the other end of the line but he laid straight into his subject.

            George Washington’s refusal to become king of the newly liberated American states is hardly is hardly an everyday topic; yet the speaker was utterly convinced of its relevance to the then ongoing Iraq War.

            I listened to the laconic, yet impassioned, voice for further clues. But it wasn’t until he inquired, “And how are you, Lang?” that I finally concluded that Pete Seeger had called me.

            I first met him in an era when one wrote letters. He had given me his phone number but I just couldn’t get my head around ringing the great man.

            In my best Christian Brothers’ handwriting the two “r’s” in my first name apparently resembled an “n” and so he called me Lang. After he’d done so a couple of times I couldn’t bring myself to correct his mistake; it would have been akin to lecturing Mount Rushmore.

            He pronounced my new name with a vaguely Scottish burr, so perhaps he thought I’d been named after Robbie Burns’ New Year’s Eve song. It caused many a raised eyebrow when he addressed me in public, but eventually I got used to it - the fact that he was talking to me at all was reason enough for celebration.  

And now, a quarter of a century after our last conversation he wanted my help in crafting a play about a meeting between General Washington and his officers where he declined their offer to declare himself head of state.

            Though the subject was gripping I could sense straight off that it presented problems. From what I knew, old George was already sick to the teeth of public life and wished for nothing more than to get home to Mount Vernon where he could murder pints of homemade dark porter. So where would the drama be?

            Pete swept this niggardly consideration aside.

            “Lang,” said he, “I’m not sure you understand the analogy. The great George Washington could innately understand the dangers of overstepping his mandate, but our current imperial president has no such qualms about dispatching our young people around the globe in wars of choice.”

            There was no two ways about it, Mr. Seeger had a point, and once he had the bit between his teeth, no president or congress would sway his views – let alone some trumped-up Wexford corner-boy.

            I could foresee many aggravated trips up to his house in Beacon and many sleepless nights as I strove to put the great man’s thoughts into a coherent dramatic form. And so we talked on for an hour or more until he had to leave for his ongoing protest against George Bush’s Folly. This consisted of Mr. Seeger standing at a rural crossroads bearing a banner denouncing the Iraq War.

            You had to hand it to him. He’d spent a lifetime in such pursuits and now in his 80’s he showed no signs of flagging. He expected no less of those around him.

He seemed unaware of, or impervious to, any kind of danger. I remember Turner & Kirwan of Wexford performing for him outdoors in Beacon in the 1970’s.

            The show was running an hour late and we were about to take the stage when the soundman declared that our set would be cut to 15 minutes. When we protested the gentleman informed us we could play as long as we liked but we would do so acoustically as the town was dangerous and he would be on the highway with the PA system before the sun went down.

            I looked out and there was Pete strolling around like a pied piper surrounded by the local urban youth. Color, creed, nor class meant little to him. He thought the best of everyone until proved otherwise. And so we played our full set regardless of the soundman’s protestations and everyone got home safe and satisfied.

            We never did get around to writing the Washington play but I often think of Pete when confronted by the demands of principle and pragmatism. What a privilege to have had dealings with someone who embodied so much of what’s great about America. 

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