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The teaspoon brigade

A Pete Seeger parable keeps Penny Stone keeping on

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Pete Seeger. Photo: Josef Schwarz via Wikimedia Commons

In common with most people seeking positive change in the world, I have been struggling these past few months to keep hopeful about humanity. It feels very overwhelming and disempowering to hear the news every day. But there are always small things that can help us to keep on keeping on.

As the New Year turned, I turned to Pete Seeger to help me re-find some of my optimism and hope. And he did not let me down. So I would like to share with you this month one of his often-told stories: the parable of the teaspoon brigade.

‘I tell everybody a little parable about the “teaspoon brigades”,’ says Pete. ‘Imagine a big seesaw. One end of the seesaw is on the ground because it has a big basket half full of rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air because it’s got a basket one-quarter full of sand. Some of us have teaspoons, and we are trying to fill it up.

‘Most people are scoffing at us. They say: “People like you have been trying for thousands of years, but it is leaking out of that basket as fast as you are putting it in.”

‘Our answer is that we are getting more people with teaspoons every day. And we believe that one of these days or years – who knows – that basket of sand is going to be so full that you are going to see that whole seesaw going “Zoop!” in the other direction. Then people are going to say, “How did it happen so suddenly?” And we answer: “Us and our little teaspoons over thousands of years.”’

‘Who will you be?’ he asks us; a member of the teaspoon brigade, or someone standing by, criticising those who are actually doing something? I know who I want to be.

Singing along with Pete, and sharing in his hand-extending, hopeful outlook on the world, helped me to pick my activist self up at the start of a new year and re-commit to those small, hopeful actions that I believe will help to tip the balance.

At a huge concert hall in Melbourne, Australia in 1963, Pete led the whole audience singing in glorious four-part harmony: ‘I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield down by the riverside, down by the riverside, down by the riverside. Gonna lay down my sword and shield down by the riverside, I ain’t gonna study war no more...’.

In the middle of the song, Pete keeps on strumming his banjo and pauses the singing to say: ‘Don’t you wish all the generals in the world could be here to listen to us singing this – I wish we could sing it so they could hear it all over Melbourne, hear it all over the way up to Sydney and Canberra, hear it all the way to Washington and Moscow, Tokyo and Peking, everywhere...’ and the audience burst out into enthusiastic applause until he starts the singing up again.

They join in with redoubled efforts, reminded of why they’re singing what they’re singing – that the world is still out there for them to change for the better, and that they are not alone in working towards, or even just wanting, a more peaceful world. And neither are we.

At the conclusion of an economics forum in 2004, Pete had the audience singing again, always singing together, helping them to find harmonies and to listen to each other, telling them at the end: ‘Let’s show the politicians that not everyone has to sing the tune!’ Harmony in action.

So, whatever it is you have to share, pick up your teaspoon and keep on keeping on. We are many. And we are still singing.

Topics: Culture