The most memorable Labor Day weekends I’ve spent so far were in Albany, New York, when my wife and I would walk over to the lawn west of the State Capitol to see Pete and Toshi Seeger. Pete sometimes came up the Hudson River on the sloop Clearwater. Other times they drove up from Beacon in Dutchess County in their little station wagon.
Pete was always mobbed with people the instant they arrived, but Toshi worked in the background taking care of the details Pete may never have noticed. She set up the tables and had copies of the most recent Sing Out! spread around. There was always information about the Clearwater and the latest fund-raising efforts to clean up the Hudson. Sometimes there were homemade cookies.
They were always cheery, family oriented, fall picnic days. Politics didn’t dominate, but discussions were in the air along with the music from local folks whose careers had been supported in so many ways by Pete and Toshi. Ruth Pelham was there from Music Mobile, and Cathy Winter, and lots of others I just don’t remember.
My wife Liane Davis’s history with Pete went back to her childhood. Liane was the daughter of Leon Davis, founder of 1199, the finest health care worker’s union there ever was. When Pete was blacklisted in the 1950 and 1960s, the precursor of 1199’s Bread and Roses project hired him, the Weavers, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, and so many more to entertain union members and their children. Pete visited Liane’s home frequently. When Leon Davis died, Pete sang at his funeral in Lincoln Center.
So, we were always treated like family at those small gatherings. I mean that, just like family. So we helped Toshi set up the tables, or went to get supplies someone had forgotten. And no, we didn’t get to have long conversations with Pete, because he was on stage. Well, there was no stage, just an expanse of freshly mowed lawn sometimes spotted by early fallen leaves. But there were always crowds of folks between him and us. He always managed to say how great it was to see us but then he was off to meet and greet. Not that he was so good at that. He personified the concept of a shy gregarious human being. He clearly felt more comfortable playing with children than talking with their parents.
My memory of those days is clouded by time. These recollections are nearing 40 years old. So, they might be a bit embellished. But, the events, and those afternoons with Pete, instilled in me a very special feeling and appreciation about labor day.
The message of the day was always that we are better when we work as family and take care of each other. There was a shared feeling of an obligation to watch each other’s back; to look to each other’s strengths and build on them. Yes, together we are stronger working to improve out lots in life than we are working alone. There was an understanding, a basic tenant in our lives, that selfishness and me first attitudes were abominable and unimaginable.
Today, what I see is unmitigated greed, selfishness and lack of concern for our fellow human beings. I fear perhaps, the tide of time has passed me by. I fear he way of living that I hold so dear, the way of caring, the way of being part of a universal struggle, the way of working together for a public good, has no currency in this modern world.
When I can put my anger and sadness aside, I get nostalgic and wistful. It is Labor Day, the time to celebrate what I hold dear. So, I join my current wife, Mary Klayder, in a traditional Labor Day vodka toast to my deceased father in law in his old shot glasses. And, I sing, with pride, “Oh you can’t scare me, I’m sticking with the union, I’m sticking with the union, ‘til the day I die.”
September 3, 2017