As some obituaries written for Pete Seeger today note, he lived on a mountainside near the Hudson River. On the other side of that mountain was where I spent my teenage summers, at Surprise Lake Camp. And Seeger could not have been a greater neighbor to the 500 campers and staff who swarmed up to SLC to fill our side of the valley for two months every year.
He would come over and play a concert or two each summer. As a 13-year-old, I was introduced to his songbook, which became a shared reference point that was drawn upon for countless campfires, overnights and sing-alongs. I was fortunate to enjoy those melodies for six summers. During my final, pre-college summer at the camp, I was able to pay forward as a counselor, explaining to new campers the gift we were all sharing.
Befitting the shared spirit and energy of the man and the camp, we often had to work for those songs. Concerts were coordinated with Shomrei Adamah — a sort of Jewish Earth Day. Packs of kids were dispatched to the local Hudson River to restore watersheds. We would hike local mountain trails to clear litter and debris.
Then in the evenings we’d pile into the Eddie Cantor Theater (named after its generous Vaudevillian benefactor, and a famous camp alumnus) to sing songs with Pete and hear stories about his life. A personal favorite moment was when he would jokingly claim ownership of the Woody Guthrie classic “This Land Is Your Land,” and go on to work through the logical contradictions of owning a song about shared spaces.
Mine is hardly a singular story. I’m part of a network of tens of thousands of New York area kids who grew up with his music. My own group in the late-’90s would sing “If I Had a Hammer” at morning roundups and spend evenings dancing (awkwardly) to Biggie and Boyz II Men. And a generation or two earlier, Neil Diamond was apparently one of those kids at morning roundup being influenced by Seeger. Camp Director Jordan Dale said Diamond considers the camp one of the formative experiences of his career. “He often refers to Surprise Lake Camp in his speeches. He was inspired by Pete Seeger,” Dale said.
That connective strand continues to this day. On Facebook, my feed is overrun with old friends sharing their remembrances. And those annual concerts Seeger performed, even into his 90s, are recorded and shared on YouTube. There was always a stool for Pete to rest on, but in the videos you see Pete standing with his banjo. Still singing a song about danger, about warning, about a love between his brothers and his sisters all over this land.