I got a phone call at work this week that made me happier than any other call I've ever gotten at work.
"Would you cover a hootenanny we're having in May to celebrate Pete Seeger's 90th birthday?"
The sun came out from behind the clouds (the ones that now glower perpetually over the offices of every print media company) and a chorus of angels sang "Guantanamera."
I didn't know anyone else in Richmond cared about Pete Seeger. A few years ago, I mentioned his 1963 Carnegie Hall concert recording to a left-wing, banjo-playing friend and got blank stares.
(As I type right now, I'm getting choked up listening Pete lead hundreds of people in "We Shall Overcome" as he weaves his harmony over and under the voices.)
To hear the news that some folks have organized a three-hour, multi-performer, honest-to-goodness, bring-down-the-rafters hootenanny, featuring many of the songs Pete Seeger made famous, in honor of his birthday warms my heart like I can't describe.
I don't have the details with me, but here are the basics: May 3 at The Camel , 8-11 p.m. Ron Gentry and friends, Cheryl Warner and the Southside Homewreckers, and many other musicians will perform.
A hootenanny, of course, depends upon a willingly participatory audience, and that is Pete's legacy, no matter what your politics: he showed people how amazing it is to be one singing voice among many.
Metaphorically speaking, a hootenanny is what I went to last night. About 30 people gathered for a guided "grassroots conversation" about Richmond and its future. I was one of perhaps 4 or 5 people who did not personally know the organizer and leader, blogger John Sarvay (sultan of consultin' with his business, Floricane). We moved among small, random groups and discussed the ways in which each of us and Richmond were alter egos of each others.
Hmmm... well, not really. But it was all rather abstract and subjective, with no clear purpose. Or, rather: no measurable purpose. I think most everyone who attended was challenged (challenged themselves) to act on whatever intersection of self and city they discovered.
For instance, one mother of a young child wants to send him to the local public elementary school, at which most students come from low-income homes. She has already joined the PTA, but now wonders how to reach out to neighborhood parents who probably will send their children to private schools or apply through open enrollment to other public schools. This reaching out requires an extraordinary level of energy and bravery (one which I wasn't able to muster).
Throughout the evening, I was reminded that personal, passionate actions count, no matter how small. One (white) man goes to (black) Mosby Court every Sunday afternoon with a friend and spends a few hours shooting hoops, or talking, or passing time. He said, "I had to learn that this wasn't about looking for results." Yet he is hopeful--certain--that his actions will have positive future consequences.
But back to the hootenanny metaphor: Pete Seeger helps people see that when they sing together--joyfully, un-self-consciously--they don't need to be afraid of being quiet, raspy, loud or out-of-tune. And then it's very easy to transfer this confidence into action.
Last evening, as we were all talking to (not at) each other about a city we all love, I felt in myself the growth of the same kind of confidence. Speaking for myself only, I'm not sure what, or when or even if, action will result from the conversations. But I believe these talkin' hootenannies are important to have.