The first time I sang “We Shall Overcome,” I was standing on the roof of a hospital in Bangladesh. My grandfather, an orthopedic surgeon who founded the hospital, was singing “We shall all be free. We shall all be free someday” as the nurses, janitors, cooks and doctors hummed along.
I later learned the Bangladeshi lyrics to the song and performed in villages we visited in the days I spent in Bangladesh. It was the first time I realized that music truly knows no geography lines. It was also there I learned what it meant to live in poverty, without medical supplies for your children. It was also perhaps the first time I truly understood the power of hope because I saw it everyday in the calm and generous faces of the people I met. And perhaps I understood more of what the song ‘We Shall Overcome” meant, to me at least, that every day people were overcoming immense obstacles and they were living and they were still loving one another. It was in Bangladesh I stopped feeling pity for the “Third World” and started wishing I had one ounce of the strength I was surrounded by.
Now as I contemplate Pete Seeger’s death and more importantly his life, I can hear his comforting voice singing “We Shall Overcome,” and it brings back those dusty memories.
Seeger’s rendition of the song was described perfectly in a recent article by Rufus Wainwright.
“‘We Shall Overcome’ was not just an aspiration, it was a plan,” he wrote.
Seeger fought on behalf of the labor movement, the struggle for Civil Rights, the peace and anti-war campaigns and he rallied for a clean and better world.
What I love most about him is that he put his passions above all fears. Seeger served a year of a 10-year jail sentence for refusing to testify before the Un-American Activities Committee, which had blacklisted his band, the Weavers. He had a strength that seemed to run through every particle of his being.
So when local musician Sharon Abreu started sending out emails last week about gathering island artists for a tribute concert, I jumped at a chance to be a part of continuing Seeger’s message.
The concert is Sunday, Feb. 23, 3-6 p.m. at Emmanuel Parish Hall. The concert is free. Any donations will go to two nonprofits: Indian Island Marine Health Observatory and Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, founded by Pete and Toshi Seeger in 1966. To read more about the concert, see the story on page 8.
Sharon is also a musician dedicated to political and environmental issues. She is well known for her activism and her annual Martin Luther King concerts on Orcas, which foster community and memory of a man who believed in standing up against injustice.
“My life was profoundly altered by Pete Seeger, his mission, vision and music. I am forever grateful. And I will forever strive for a more perfect union and a compassionate, sustainable world,” wrote Sharon in an email shortly after Seeger passed on. She added, “I’ve heard Pete say, ‘That if there’s a human race on Earth a hundred years from now, music will be part of the reason.’ I’ve also heard him say, ‘It will be because of millions of little things done by ordinary people every day.’ I believe both of those are true.”
I agree, but in ordinary things like singing a simple song, it doesn’t feel ordinary, it feels extraordinary that we can have so much hate and violence in this world and at the same moment we can have so much beauty, strength and love.
“Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe we shall overcome someday.”