Magic Penny 2015
Sunday afternoon, the waning hours of this year’s CMN National Conference
I am in a cramped room full of people I admire. They are also friends, old and new, and we are eager to celebrate one of us: Pete Seeger.
As I wait for the program to begin, I wonder if everyone present knows that Pete refused the Magic Penny Award when he was alive, even after multiple asks. This, in spite of the fact that Pete is counted as a founder of the Children’s Music Network, an off-shoot of the People’s Music Network. Apparently he had little interest in and no use at all for awards, the National Medal of Honor (1994) and a Kennedy Center Honors award (1994) notwithstanding.
Pete is never far from our hearts and lips at CMN. When he died two years ago, he was musically celebrated by CMNers throughout the country as the nation mourned its greatest folk singer.
Pete always feels present at our gatherings and in fact attended past CMN conferences. He embodied and possibly coined “the folk process,” a frequently repeated phrase in our community. His vast repertoire is well represented and can be heard at the round-robins, in workshops and often in both the opening and closing ceremonies.
I wonder how, exactly, Pete’s singular spirit will be celebrated this afternoon. After all, I am sitting in a room of like minds who have known Pete the man, Pete the activist, Pete the songwriter, Pete the organizer, and Pete the song leader—in my opinion his most impressive gift.
In spite of his physical absence, it is not difficult to find Pete in the crowd. I hear him in Ruth Pelham’s rough and ready voice; I see him in daughter Tinya Seeger’s intimate reflections; I know him from the songs lovingly chosen by the Magic Penny Committee to highlight a long career and a life well lived, songs both silly and serious that reflected a man who knew the importance of music in children’s lives. I am reminded of how children and young adults welcomed Pete to their schools and summer camps after the Weavers were banned from stages throughout the United States, their recordings censored by radio disc jockeys as the scourge of McCarthyism swept the nation.
We listen and sing along to some of his greatest hits—songs that are tuneful, easily learned, and thoughtful. No song sheets are necessary in this crowd. Pete’s more memorable songs contain insights that he surely must have hoped would make us better humans. He was an optimist, and I believe he remained one to the end, in spite of the societal discord and violence that accompanied his time on earth for nearly a century. One of his very last videos seems to support this as he performs Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” with The Rivertown Kids.
It occurs to me that children’s music found Pete, not the other way around. I feel the same thing happened to me, and I know I’m not alone, especially at this gathering. I would like to believe that Pete found solace, hope, and acceptance in audiences of children. I do.
The Magic Penny Award ceremony is always a rich program in a weekend of riches. This year was no different, and our celebration of Pete Seeger was the memorial CMN needed to mourn our friend, our mentor. In his memory, may we continue to lift our voices together in song.