John Yatchisin of England Memorializes Pete Seeger

John Yatchisin of England Memorializes Pete Seeger

{Featured photo courtesy of Ken Schmitt}

Beginning the Journey…

I met Pete Seeger back in 2010, as a 50th birthday present to myself. I decided that I would fly to New York with a good friend from our village in England, Mike Cowell, in order to attend the Beacon Sloop Club Corn Festival, which Pete attended every year. Thankfully, he was there and, thankfully, he and I had a chance to talk. One of his key messages to me was that the internet, and the rise of social media, would make it more likely that small groups of folks who are like-minded and want to see societal change are more likely to succeed, as the powers that be find it much easier to focus on large, concentrated groups than individuals connected in this fashion. I think he was right about this, as he was about so many things.

The amusing anecdote from that day was when a guy appeared with two very good pictures of Pete, which he asked Pete to sign. Pete didn’t like to sign a lot of autographs in public, as it became too burdensome, and when he politely declined the guy said “Pete, these are for Barbara Streisand.”. Pete, of course, didn’t seem too impressed by this, as celebrity status didn’t mean much to him. I think he did grunt and sign, however!

Banjo Strings Plucking at a Young Boy’s Heart…. 

I first heard Pete perform with Arlo Guthrie when I was a young boy, watching them in a wonderful concert from “Live at Wolf Trap”. The songs and their lyrics resonated in my mind, and stirred my heart, and from that day forward I felt closer to my paternal grandfather, who was a coal miner in Scranton and died at a young age. The injustices inherent in capitalism, and wealth inequality, began to really sink in, and from that day to this have informed who I am, and what I believe.

Writings from the Heart & Warm Returns

I corresponded with Pete on a number of occasions, but I want to share a letter that I wrote to Pete about Olney and John Newton, and his response. My address was removed because it will be on display at the Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney, Buckinghamshire, England, as part of their selection of items relating to John Newton and the song “Amazing Grace”:

Postcard from Pete (back) (cropped)

John Newton, a former slave ship captain and later curate of Olney Church, wrote the song “Amazing Grace” as a personal testament to his redemption. He was a key influence on William Wilberforce, the man responsible for ending slavery in the British Empire. Wilberforce was contemplating leaving politics for the ministry, but Newton encouraged him to stay in Parliament and “serve God where he was”. Wilberforce took his advice, and spent the rest of his life working towards the abolition of slavery, and succeeding. So John Newton helped change history and also just happened to write a song, which came from the depths of his soul, which is probably the best-loved folk song in the English language.

When Pete passed on, I was really broken. I wrote to his family and told them that Pete had been the man I wish I was, and losing him was like losing a chamber in my heart. I knew I had to do something to commemorate his life, and his influence on me as well as the world!

Beating Hearts Resonate in Time

So, in the end, Pete Seeger has been one of the key influences on my internal value system, and has made me the man I am today. As I said in another letter to Pete, “The songs you’ve sung, and the causes you’ve championed, have resonated in me from the time I was a boy, and a lot of the good in me is a function of those songs seeping deep in the bone and staying there decade after decade.” I ended that letter by saying: “Be well, my friend, and know that many hearts beat with yours, and will for so long as the sun shines.”Sadly, of course, hearts can only beat for a finite time. I was in Olney a few weeks ago with my wife and friends, walking about the lovely garden you see below, and I realized that a memorial bench, in that garden near the place where “Amazing Grace” was born, was necessary, and that a love that spanned over 70 years had to be commemorated on that bench also.

The photo below is a view from the spot where a memorial bench now sits. It is in the garden of the home of the English poet William Cowper, now home to the Cowper and Newton Museum, and looks out toward the spire of the church where John Newton is buried.

Cowper Newton Garden Bench Alone

The bench says, in caps: “TO PETE AND TOSHI SEEGER, WHO HAD AMAZING GRACE”. It also includes a representation of the banjo Pete drew as part of his signature.

All of you folks reading this should consider a trip to Olney. It’s a beautiful little market town not far from London, and you can sit on the bench and look out over a beautiful vista, thinking about love, and about life, and about justice, and honor, and virtue. Let me know if you decide to do so, and we can have a pint together in memory of this wonderful couple, and all that Olney represents! I would love to hear from others who feel as I do.

– John Yatchisin

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