The Block Island Times

Life, good and pure and hopeful

By Martha Ball | Jan 31, 2014


The early morning news of Pete Seeger’s passing came as a surprise but not a shock. He had, it seemed, an immortality which I realize even as I write the word, he truly does have.

In the summer of 1969, I waited table at the Narragansett Inn. Radio was a different medium then and the cooks always had on stations that — when not airing Red Sox games — were tuned to popular music and news, before news became a pick-your-poison sort of game.  The two summers before had been all politics and Impossible Dream hopes; that year the kitchen was where we heard of Chappaquiddick, the little island whose name would became a permanent part the national political lexicon and listened to the ramp-up to the moon landing we would later watch on television.

On Block Island, we had our own excitement: Pete Seeger and his crew were sailing the just-launched “new & splendid sloop Clearwater” along the coast and would be making port here and coming ashore to sing at the Empire Theatre! It was 1969, I worked with mainly college students at the Narragansett and Pete Seeger was about as good as it got, a well established singer and activist, royalty even in a world that eschewed such labels.

He fought the good fight, although even with the benefit of a perspective decades long it still seems the lines were clearer, or had been; by 1969 they were getting murky. The year previous, assassinations of people we saw as trying to do right suddenly felt commonplace and the ACLU, who were supposed to be the good guys, had defended neo-Nazis marching in a Chicago suburb (a real lesson in freedom of assembly), and the war we had been told would be ending did not seem to be. But it was summer and Pete Seeger was coming to Block Island!

I remember rushing through dinner at the hotel, hopeful we’d make it to town as close to the 8:30 posted time of the concert as we could, our $2.50 tickets in hand. The Star Department Store sold inexpensive India print bedspreads and four of us wore dresses I had made from that fabric that lent itself to such things.  By the time we arrived, there were not any blocks of seats left but we ‘Gansett girls had an in — the owner of the Empire was also the manager at the hotel. He had a soft spot well hidden but that night he let us go to the very front of the theatre and sit on the floor. It was not the shiny polished surface it is today, rather those same planks with decades of dust and gum ground into them, but they were the best seats in the house, and we were literally sitting at Pete Seeger’s feet!

The Empire stage was used then for high school graduations and drama productions. The screen did not roll up at the flip of a switch, rather was affixed to a wooden frame and hauled up to the rafters with the block and tackle. When it was raised for the concert, the 1969 Class Motto, “To guide our feet into the way of peace,” was still hanging on the arch above the stage although I doubt most of the audience realized its genesis.

Years later someone else recalled that the Empire was not full but in my memory it was packed, music rising to the rafters with all the joy and energy that was a hallmark of Pete Seeger’s life. There was only one member of the crew who stood out to me, a young singer from Camden, Maine, who sang an odd song about seal people. When “Who was with Pete Seeger at the Empire?” was a Block Island Trivia question, I excitedly raised my hand, sure the answer was Gordon Bok. I quite missed the “onto national fame” part, or thought “my” singer more famous than I knew. That was the first time I realized Don McLean, of “American Pie” had been there as well, part of the Clearwater crew.

I have no idea what they sang or how long the concert lasted; my clear memory of Pete Seeger, his banjo raised, has probably been reinforced by photographs and film seen in the intervening years. I do know he closed the concert with a familiar song, it must have been “This Land Is Your Land,” it was one everyone in the audience knew at least in part, it was easy to sing and it was glorious.

Later that night we crept down the dock to look at the Clearwater, but for all our youth we were not that bold and did not meet anyone in the crew before we ran off; we were horrified to later learn someone among the Narragansett gang had stolen a rope bumper from the vessel.

It was the 22nd of July, after the triumph of moon landing but with Chappaquiddick still brewing in the news and the Manson murders in the near future. I have other times thought back upon that extraordinary summer and wondered how it could have been that those events which in memory are spread over the whole season, could all have happened within a few weeks — or even days — of the concert. In my mind there is no overlap of them and the night Pete Seeger and the crew of the Clearwater brought life, good and pure and hopeful, to the stage of the Empire.

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