by Katie Trautz
In 2007, when our community music school began under the leadership of Rebecca Singer and myself, we had envisioned a gathering place for folks interested in traditional music: a place to share the joy of making music together and the joy of learning about it as well. We felt confident that this would enliven and enrich Montpelier, making the winters more tolerable and the summers more magical. Group-music-making experiences are powerful, and there is no doubt this makes the world a more positive place to live in.
In 2008, the movie Power of Song was shown at the Savoy Theater. The movie was a documentary made with Pete Seeger to show the impact that music can have on communities. I was blown away by how much Pete accomplished through his songs. He used his music to cause social change, and the movie proved that it worked. The footage is so compelling: imagine thousands of people united in song, uplifting and empowering themselves by being together in this way. I left that theater in tears. I also left the theater knowing what my calling was to be. So here I am, spreading the good news called music. And Pete showed me how.
I am so honored to have met him and to have spent some time in his presence. In 2006, I went to the Clearwater Festival to visit Pete’s grandson Tao, who had become a friend of mine. I sat in the back of a pickup truck with Pete and Tao, listening as they caught up. I kept thinking to myself then: “What on earth do I say to this man?” Timidity kept me from conversation, but to be that close to such a powerful human being with such vision was enough for me.
Following my experience with the movie Power of Song, I wrote Pete a letter describing the Summit School. I also asked if he could come for a visit sometime. Sure enough, in about a month, I received a letter back from him. It was part form letter and partially handwritten. His note to me said, “How I would love to visit the Summit School, but alas, I am 90 years old, and it’s just impossible.” Followed by “Here is my phone number.” I never called him; I was too nervous. But I framed the letter, and it sits on the piano in my music room.
This past summer I went to a festival called the Summer Hoot at the Ashokan Center in New York. I wanted to see Pete Seeger in concert, as well as get his autograph on an instrument that would be used at a fundraiser for the Summit School. (You can find information on the signed ukulele on our website summit-school.org.) The concert was fabulous; Pete had hundreds of us singing kids songs together and practicing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” With a little help from some friends, I was taken to a small house on the festival grounds and sat with Pete as he discussed the state of the environment around the Hudson. He knew the names of all the types of trees that grew there and reflected on the changes the area had been through over the years.
I left with his signature on that instrument and a revived vision for the Summit School. The project must go on! And so it has, and so it will. We are united by the music we make, and together we can hold this community music school dear, nurturing and enriching the lives of people young and old. Thank you Pete, your vision will live on.
Katie Trautz (katietrautz.com) is a native Vermont fiddler who has toured nationally and internationally sharing traditional music and original folk songs. Trautz is the cofounder of the nonprofit folk music school The Summit School of Traditional Music and Culture based in Montpelier.