Someday, it might be possible to take the Pete Seeger Bridge to Pete Seeger Park and listen to Pete Seeger music by the Pete Seeger statue.
Plans abound to honor the recently deceased folk icon, with a few early events planned for Saturday, what would have been his 95th birthday. But trying to honor a hardcore egalitarian like Seeger raises some questions.
How do you single out a singer who revered the masses? Is it OK to bestow honors on Seeger that he declined during his life? And would the old eco-warrior want his name on a $3.9 billion bridge serving suburban car culture?
“He did everything possible to not take credit for anything. It was always a group effort,” said George Mansfield, a council member in Beacon, the Hudson River city near where Seeger and his late wife, Toshi, lived for decades. “People say `How do you best memorialize Pete?’ and everyone agrees the best way to memorialize him is to continue what he started.”
Seeger, who died in January at age 94, was known around the world for his activism and gentle voice on such signature songs as “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” He was also known closer to home for his deep connection to the Hudson River and his tireless efforts in the movement to clean it up.
That’s why Beacon plans to rename its riverside park for Seeger and his wife, who were instrumental in converting the former dump into Riverfront Park. And more controversially, some people want to put Seeger’s name on the massive span that will replace the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson just north of New York City.
“I just imagine a family driving across the bridge years from now and some kids says, `Who is Pete Seeger?’ That kind of thing. That would be cool,” said Bill Swersey, a New York City resident who liked the bridge-naming idea so much he created a Change.org petition that has more than 14,000 signatures.
Critics say naming a bridge for Seeger that carries some 140,000 cars a day between sprawling Westchester and Rockland counties would fly in the face of the singer’s live-simply ethos. One counterproposal has been to rename the more ecologically friendly Walkway Over the Hudson about 45 miles upriver.
Seeger declined such honors in his life, so the idea of lending his name to bridges sits uncomfortably with some.
“He hated the spotlight,” said family friend Thom Wolke, who believes living up to Seeger’s ideals is a more fitting remembrance.
Mansfield said Seeger’s family approved of renaming the Beacon park, provided Toshi was included. He said the family also will have a say in what sort of sculpture or plaque will grace the renamed “Pete and Toshi Seeger Riverfront Park,” which could be anything from a representational statue to something abstract. One Seeger family member, grandson Kitama Cahill-Jackson, said he’s for naming anything that keeps his grandfather’s name alive.
“Whenever someone wanted to name something after him I’d ask him, and he’d say, `Do it when I’m dead,” Cahill-Jackson recalled. “And he’s dead, so I think this is a good time to do it.”
Cahill-Jackson is among the people who will honor Seeger in the most obvious way: with song. He is raising money for Seeger Fest, a five-day series of music and events in the Hudson Valley and New York City – including a concert at Lincoln Center’s outdoor performance area – starting July 17.
Seeger’s birth date on Saturday will be marked with shows featuring his songs in Woodstock, New York and St. Paul, Minnesota, and Wolke organized a show in Fontenet, France. The shows will be held in different places with different artists, but the thought is the same.
“I think part of me is doing this because I want to keep them alive,” Cahill-Jackson said. “And I’m hoping that weekend, they’ll be alive.”