Hope for the Human Race; or, Seek Beauty

Friends, let me thank you for coming to this wonderful old auditorium, and I hope we’re going to get some good harmony tonight. No, really! If there’s hope for the human race to learn to live in the machine age… it’s gonna be when people learn to balance things so that they can do something on their own, without a machine, something creative, no matter what it is. Of course, I love music. I wish every family could make music, and I often think the best time to start is when you’re just as young as possible. If you know someone with a baby, try singing to them.
—Pete Seeger playing Sanders Theater at Harvard, 1980

This afternoon I walked across my little town to Princeton High School, where Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) was doing a children’s concert as a benefit for the Princeton Public Library. I sat in the second-to-last row of the high-school auditorium and listened to one of my favorite singers sing some of my favorite songs: “Day Is Done,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Marvelous Toy,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” all the songs I have on cassettes in a drawer in my old bedroom because we used to play them over and over again when I was little, when cars all had tape decks. Now I have all these songs in iTunes on my computer, and I also have them in my head and in my heart, and in the songbook I use when I get together with friends every week to sing folk music, because that’s the sort of thing you can do in college.

Peter, I’m sure, embraces the precepts of the other Peter I quoted above. He had children up on stage left and right—singing along, turning the pages of picture books, and making us older people laugh. He sang “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and dedicated it to Mary Travers (who died last September) in such a touching speech. He sang a song called “Don’t Laugh At Me,” and prefaced it with a story about a program he’s working on in Israel, trying to bring Israeli and Palestinian children together to be children together and to end the cycle of hate and violence their parents can’t. To be sure, he made parents’ jokes too—like suggesting that the sound effects in “Marvelous Toy” were what he thought of the US Senate, or saying of “Day Is Done,” “unlike ‘Puff,’ this song has only one meaning.” But above all this was a concert for the children, and I was glad of it, because it meant the concert could be about joy and innocence, not explicitly about stopping war and hate. One of the little children Peter invited onstage was a three-year-old girl with a pink tiara. Peter complimented her on her crown, and asked where she got it. Her answer was, “I have two, so that when I have a friend over we can both be queen. Isn’t that cool?”

Yes. Oh yes, it’s so very cool, because that’s what activism through this kind of music is all about. More than a piece of legislation or a policy proposal, it represents the longing for a world where we can all be queen, where there are enough pink foam crowns to go around. As Pete Seeger said in 1980, we must learn to live in the machine age—and thirty years later, we’re still learning. It’s because we grow up and we see how much awfulness exists in the world, and we either become cynical or we compartmentalize or we get subsumed by machines and become them. We become alienated from our species-life. We forget the words to “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

But keep seeking beauty and peace, love, and understanding, and keep hoping for a happy ending. Put your trust in the children and give them a world they won’t be ashamed to inherit. Teach them the words to “Puff.” Teach them an old union song. And someday, by the grace of any god or none, we may all have our own pink crowns; we’ll all be queen. Wouldn’t that be cool?

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