One of my favorite Pete Seeger photos, which is actually from a short video I once saw, is of an elderly Pete standing by the side of a lonely road, probably somewhere near his cabin home outside of Beacon, NY, holding up a sign to attract the attention of cars as they occasionally pass by. It’s a cold winter morning and you can see the frosted breath coming out of Pete’s nose and mouth. Written on the sign is one word, “Peace.”
Over the years I’ve wondered how long he stood out there, did he do this often? Who took the picture/video?
Ronnie Gilbert, one of the other original members of Pete’s singing group, The Weavers, said that when they started singing back in the heady, optimistic days following World War II, a time when America was so confident and secure in its vision of itself that it was ready and willing to contemplate on and meditate with the artistic vision and warnings of a play like Death of a Salesman, “We believed in those days that if we kept on singing long enough and loud enough we could change the world. ”
Years later, following their artistic exile and years on the blacklist, she amended her statement. “We kept on singing so the world wouldn’t change us.”
And here we are on the 5th of January, 2021. On another of those days when we can say in all sincerity the next twenty-four hours or so have the potential to change the world in profound and positive ways.
Or, it could be the beginning of a time when, like Pete out there alone in the snow, we are just going to have to keep doing what we’re doing so the world wouldn’t change us.
That image of Pete reminds me of two other images both found in the Model Book of Mother Courage, Brecht’s visual guide of what a production of his great play might look like. The first photo is of Helene Weigel’s famous silent scream. And the second is from the very last moment of the play, a moment that Tennessee Williams once called ‘the most inspiring in all of modern theatre’, when alone on another lonely road, Mother Courage hitches herself up to the front of her empty wagon and presses on into an uncertain future. But a future in which she will still carry on.
A new year is upon us, and we are moving into the second phase of rehearsing our Irondale Mother Courage, Courage the Radio Show. Each new phase of rehearsals always seems to begin with a moment of anticipation, of excited optimism mixed with trepidation and a gnawing fear of what lies ahead, as we roll the Irondale artistic dice for the hundredth time or so. Hoping that what lies ahead will be a project that will somehow alter the minds of the people who make it as well as those who witness it in live performance.
Or will what lies ahead be more like Pete standing by the side of the road holding up his sign for the few cars passing by in the cold.
Nothing wrong with that, when you think about it, as I am sure Pete understood and what is on my mind right now at four o’clock in the morning on January 5th as I write this, my first draft of What’s on Jim’s Mind, my first letter of the new year, 2021.