“What can I do for you?” the bartender asks me in an Irish brogue.
“I'm trying to figure that out.”
“Well,” he says, smiling, “there's no hurry.”
I'm grateful. The truth is I need to get my head straightened.
The Plough and Stars is spacious in a way few San Francisco bars manage to be, and the gorgeous wooden room feels cavernous yet comfortable tonight, when it's almost empty.
I'm here because I haven't really processed Pete Seeger's death. It's with me like a limp, and I think that to do this I need to hear live folk music. The Plough and Stars is perhaps the Bay Area's finest folk music bar outside of Berkeley, and every Sunday is a “session” — when musicians gather to play Irish tunes without structure or limits.
It's not like an open mic, where the emphasis is always “Look at me and what I can do!” In a session, the emphasis is “Look at us, and what we can do together.” And that's what Pete was about.
I never met the man, but Pete Seeger is incredibly important in my life. You probably don't know me, so you're going to have to believe me when I say that I am frequently asked by strangers, “How did you learn to sing like that?” [Ed. note: Benjamin's solos are a highlight of any bar night.]
I tell them the truth: “I listened to too many Pete Seeger records as a kid, and it just happened.”
Pete Seeger's voice became my voice at an early age — at least as close as I could make it. And that voice has been better than therapy or church.
Recently I was at a big out-of-town party … we bought up a hotel, turned the whole place into a continuous costume bash … and by the late burlesque show I had become fraught and angry. (Which usually happens for a while during big parties.) As I fumed and watched talented women take off their clothes, a stunning woman I didn't know stood next to me in brilliant costume, and I desperately, desperately wanted to connect with her. Just to know I was alive, just to have my humanity acknowledged.
If I'm in a good mood I can talk to anybody, anywhere. But I was seething, and I've discovered through the years that reaching out when I'm in a bad mood is a terrible idea — it just makes everybody suffer. So I sat there, miserable because of the unbreachable gulf between us.
She touched my shoulder. “Hey, are you singing later?”
“What?” Was this really happening? “Yeah, probably.”
She smiled. “Down here or up there?”
“Up there. Probably around 2:30.”
She beamed. “That sounds great.”
Time after time there's been a chasm between me and the rest of humanity, and singing helped me cross it. It's been with Arab shopkeepers in Jerusalem, it's been with Midwestern steel workers preparing to picket, it's been with wheeler-dealers in Russia, it's been with artists in the desert.
“I never refused to sing for anybody,” Pete told Congress members when they accused him of singing for communists. “No matter what their situation in life.” I learned that from him.
A few musicians walk in to the bar, two, four, eight, and unpack their instruments. They start tuning mandolins and violins, a flute, an accordion. Scales are scaled, notes tested.
Suddenly, without any particular cue, a jig emerges, and everyone is making music together.
The number of musicians grows in between songs; they moved the furniture to make a circle in this rectangular room. I sip a scotch, listening. The Plough and Stars doesn't have much variety in drinks, but the trade of an Irish bar isn't modern mixology, it's old favorites. The performers are really good. Slowly a crowd of onlookers fills in. Soon the place is humming.
A beautiful Irish bar on a quiet, rainy night, full of talented people making come-one-come-all music: What could be better?
An hour into the session, the flute player mentions that a giant has been lost, and asks if anybody can sing a Pete Seeger song. There's a long hesitation, and finally one of the fiddlers tells Pete's famous story, based on an African tale, “Abiyoyo.”
Amazingly to me, most of the crowd doesn't know it. But it goes over beautifully.
After the applause dies down, I take a deep breath and call from where I'm drinking outside the circle: “Can I sing a Pete Seeger song?”