Earlier today, a great friend of mine, and a great gift to the world, passed on. As with the recent passing of some of the great heroes of our generation (those of us who came into our own in the 60s) Theo Bikel was larger than life and, alas, I fear we shall not see others like him again soon. Theo was a force to reckon with, a leader, an unrepentant "lefty" for sure, but above all a just and loving person, a mensch of mensches and a sweet, generous, kind, and caring rabbi-like friend to me and so many others like me.
As a friend, he was an adviser, a confidant, an ally, a co-organizer and co-worker, and a gentle and encouraging buddy who was there for me in the ways I most needed a friend. I was a child who, for all intents, from the age of 5 on, grew up without a father, and Theo was a father figure to me, at least in the 60s when our 14 years age difference was huge -- though now, 14 is a far smaller number years in proportion to those we have lived.
In recent years, unlike my relationships to some of my friends of many decades, Theo and I became closer than ever -- and that will remain a great and enduring gift to me in my life. I got to know, and came to adore, his beloved wife, just widowed, Aimee, whom he loved beyond the beyonds. The heroism and generosity of Aimee, who tended to Theo's needs and loved him with all her heart, is not a tale that can be easily told. But I saw it and I saw it light up Theo's life in ways that made his last years perhaps as beautiful, or more beautiful, than any in his life before. He was, in a word, totally in love, heart, soul, spirit, intellect, and creatively, too -- and with Aimee by his side he treasured every moment when he was not battling the ravages of age and cancer that were, for both of them, a most terrible challenge and burden almost too great to measure. More than I can say, Aimee gave Theo a gift beyond gifts and he gave her back the same, despite the terrible tsurus and trials of the infirmity that visited Theo in the last year they shared together.
Theo was, for many folk singer activists, a role model and a mentor to those of us who had figured out that our singing was as much a way to touch people's hearts in ways that could evoke their (and our) better angels as it was a way to create beauty and entertain them (those perspectives, of course, are overlapping and in some ways, identical). Our beloved Pete Seeger was the primary "go to" Peter Paul and Mary hero (Mary called us "Seeger's Raiders", something like Nader's Raiders), and Pete certainly was the inspiration for our trio as practitioners of singing together with an audience in ways that can magically create community, strengthen moral resolve, and empower us to join hands to create change from grass roots up. And, of course, Pete was the quintessential activist who walked the walk, perhaps more purely than any other.
Theo, however, inspired me in a different way. He showed me how to search for the nuances of poetry and language in a song that can reach deeply into your heart, let you spill out your pain and joy, your fear and determination, and, wonder of wonders, find that amongst the audience that is listening to you, you are not alone in your feelings, your passions, and your quest. For instance, my writing "The Great Mandala", perhaps the best song I ever wrote, an ironic, tortured tale of a young man who fasts in jail as the war-mongers outside rejoice at his death because they can now "end the world", might well have never be written save for Theo's way of approaching his art, and the inspiration that provided for me. As much as I love to get an audience to sing along with me, and then coast and glide on their singing as it leads me back, the other side of me as a performer of songs the folk tradition was, early on, modeled by Theo, whether he knew it or not. Theo was passionate, tender, intense, emotional, triumphant, angry, and more when he sang his songs. He did not only "let the song tell the story". He lived his songs as if he were the characters in the song.
Because of Theo, in the present time, I become the person singing "Stewball". I become the "poor boy in trouble" who, alas, "bet on the gray mare and the bay -- but, if I'd bet on my Stewball, I'd be a free man today."
I'm not very successfully wrestling with the fact of Theo's passing. As is not uncommon, I've not really accepted it yet. That will come later. For now, I'm focused on flying to California and being at Theo's funeral and burial on Thursday and helping Aimee and Theo's sons in any way I can.
Peter Yarrow - July 22, 2015