02 February 2014

Bringing Out the Dead

Pete Seeger's passing recalls to me the one time I met him.  The occasion was a funeral.  I was officiating at a small private service for Norman Rosten, a well regarded Brooklyn poet, less than a year after arriving at the First Unitarian Church there.  Those outside the city may know Rosten because of his book on Marilyn Monroe whom he knew through Arthur Miller, later adapted into an opera performed in 1993. 

The service was held on the barge that held Bargemusic, right at the Fulton Ferry beside the Brooklyn Bridge.  I do not remember why but in New York City people have many overlapping connections that often are not evident.  Remind me to tell you about praying over George Plimpton sometime.  Anyway, after planning the service, I assumed the music would be of the sort you would get at Bargemusic.  Wrong.

Pete Seeger was the one and only musician.  I was not sure why at that moment.  Maybe there were 25 of us there, hardly a crowd.  Even for the barge which is scarcely larger than a garage.  I shook his hand and we compared notes about who does what first and second and so forth.  This being less than a year into my church, I was fairly star struck and humbled by the occasion. 

Then he sang "The Ballad of Norma Jean," a song he composed on the words of one of Norman's poems.  It was sung at, and recorded for, at Carnegie Hall in June of 1963.  There was the connection.

Whenever he sang or spoke the famous smile was there.  But after the service, during the reception, he was very quiet.  Not knowing him I was loathe to chat him up.  He did not linger long.  I was tempted to think him aloof, but realized it was just as likely, probably more so, that he was as shy in private as he was ebullient in public.  There was something tender in him, almost vulnerable. 

So I like to think, at least.  But I remember with clarity him standing there in barge, instrument over his shoulder, singing to this small band of mourners, for a man whom I had known but a little in my few months there.  But at the end of that day my thread had been added to the knot tied by Pete Seeger and Norman Rosten and Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe.  It was a strange and precious day.