Earlier this week, Pete Seeger died at the age of 94. He was a legend, a genius, a humanitarian, and most of all – he was a storyteller, and an ambassador for storytelling. His book, Pete Seeger’s Storytelling Book, is a guide to treating stories as not just canonized tales, but seeds that any teller could grow into something new and wonderful in the moment, creating a living memory map for families and friends to hold in common.
In this book, he advocates the art of improvisational story telling, of taking tales and making them new and fresh, and essentially, helping people give themselves permission to be vehicles for story so that they could experience this memory map as continuation of what came before, rather than merely look upon it as an immovable fixture of the past.
I grew up in the Hudson Valley, and so his music was a part of my childhood. He’ll be greatly missed. His songs feel like home, like earth, like family, and like warmth.
That’s what folk tales and folk stories do – they remind us of who we are as a culture. They preserve the past while folding the present into it, so that the past isn’t something left behind, but something that grows out from common roots. When we retell old stories or sing old songs, we add new branches and leaves as we modify the stories and tunes to make them our own. There’s new growth, but it doesn’t come at the expense of forgetting our history. That’s the gift of folk, and the gift of Pete Seeger, the Guthries, Mark Twain, and all those who have added their own new growth to the American tree of tales.