I don’t remember the date, but the event is as clear as yesterday.
A little background: Constitution Island lies in the Hudson River between The US Military Academy at West Point and Garrison, New York. The famous iron chain that was stretched across the Hudson during the Revolutionary War went from West Point to the island.
In the nineteenth century, Susan and Anna Warner owned the island and lived there. Susan wrote a book called The Wide, Wide World, which was second on the century’s best-seller list, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Anna wrote the words to the hymn “Jesus Loves Me.” When the sisters died, they left the property to West Point. These days it is a historic site, administered by a nonprofit organization but still with strong ties to the US Military Academy.
When my friend Col. (ret.) William A. McIntosh was still on the faculty at the Point, he took charge, one year, of the annual fundraiser for the foundation. It was held in the officers’ mess at West Point. As the guest of honor, Bill chose Pete Seeger, the Hudson River’s greatest champion. Pete brought along his banjo.
Bill invited me and my husband David to the event—fully aware of our pacifist politics. We sat at a table with the members of the English and Art Departments and their spouses, surrounded by tables of the all the rest of the West Point big brass.
Bill introduced us to Pete. That was thrill enough for us, two who had been life-long admirers and frequent attendees at his concerts at Carnegie Hall.
Then came the BEST part. After singing a few tunes for the crowd—mostly sea chanteys as I recall, Pete launched into a sing-along. He announced that he had chosen a tune that was easy to sing and that he was pretty certain all of us knew: the Doxology. You know—the hymn that begins, “Praise God from all blessings flow…”
He told us that he had composed new lyrics to it and proceeded to teach the assembled crowd his words so that we could sing it with him. (With a little effort I found the lyrics on the internet.) Here are a few of the verses.
“Sing peace between the grass and trees
Between the continents and the seas
Between the lion and the lamb
Between young Ivan and young Sam
Between the white, black, red and brown
Between the wilderness and town
Sing peace between the near and far
'Tween Allah and the six-pointed star
The fish that swim, the birds that fly
The deepest seas, the stars on high
Bear witness now that you and I
Sing! Peace on earth and sea and sky.”
Pete sang the whole song through. Then he concentrated on the last verse. He sang a line and invited us all to repeat it. Then, the next line. Repeating so we could get the words right.
Once we had gotten the words down, he had us rehearse some harmony: The tenors only. Then the Baritones. The sopranos. Then the altos. Just the men. Just the women. Then everyone again.
Over and over, to the accompaniment of his five-string banjo, Pete got the faculty of the country’s premier military college to sing his song about peace.
My heart sings now, just thinking about what he did that night and how fortunate I was to be there.
Rest in Peace, Pete Seeger.