The Sebastopol Living Peace Wall will be holding its fifth annual induction ceremony on Saturday, Sept. 7, from 11 a.m. to noon, in the Sebastopol town plaza.
Each year, four new names of peacemakers who have worked nonviolently for peace and justice are added to the peace wall. Previous honorees have included Daniel Ellsberg, Dolores Huerta, Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Holly Near and several local activists.
This year the four new honorees are Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, Tula Jaffe, Dr. Earl Herr and Sebastopol’s very own Jim Corbett (aka Mr. Music).
According to Peace Wall founder Michael Gillotti, “Jim Corbett is a treasured citizen of Sebastopol and a long-time advocate for peace and justice. Among his many activities and accomplishments is that he was instrumental in the naming of Sebastopol PeaceTown USA. He organized the Wednesday night Peacetown concerts in Ives Park which has brought the community together for years and during which there is always a few minutes of silence, a pause in the middle of the music, to contemplate peace.
“He has also formed and led the Love Choir, the motto of which is, ‘Making peace and love, one song at a time.’ In addition, he built and maintains the Peace Garden near the Teen Center which provides various stations for individuals to reflect on written affirmations on peace.”
“Jim has selflessly and tirelessly served the Sebastopol community in so many more ways for many years and is a well-loved member of the community,” Gillotti said. “He clearly deserves to be honored and acknowledged this year on the Sebastopol Living Peace Wall.”
Corbett said he’d been surprised when he learned that his name was being added to the peace wall.
“I was absolutely stunned,” he said. “I’m supposed to give a five-minute speech, and probably three of them will be me crying. But I'm Irish, right, so that’s legal.”
It’ll be a busy couple of days: on Sept. 7 he’ll be honored at the peace wall celebration, and on Sept. 8 he’ll be celebrating his 70th birthday at the Sebastopol Community Center with several hundred friends.
How Jim Corbett became Mr. Music
Corbett was born in 1949 in Omaha, Nebraska, into a big Catholic family with seven kids. His father was a professor first at Creighton College and then Ohio State.
Corbett was obsessed with sports as a kid, but his mother encouraged him to take up piano, starting when he was 6 years old.
She said, “Practice — someday you’ll thank me,” Corbett said — and much to his surprise, he enjoyed it.
Years later, inspired by the folk revival of the 1960s, he learned how to play guitar from friends in college.
“That’s kind of when the light came on, you know, because I’d taken piano lessons from Mrs. Mulligan down the street — 50 cents a lesson—but it wasn’t until I learned guitar — and learned about chord structures and chord progressions — and brought that back to the piano that I was like, ‘Oh, well, this makes more sense.’”
After three years at Ohio State, he headed west, landing in San Francisco in 1972.
He didn’t immediately find his way into a career in music, however. For several years, he made money as a referee for college baseball and softball.
“I was called Diamond Jim back then,” he said, “because I spent so much time on baseball diamonds.” (He’s been a loyal Oakland A’s fan all these years.)
Corbett moved to west county in the mid-70s and met his wife, to whom he’s been married for 44 years, in a Gurdjieffian commune in south Sebastopol, where, Corbett said, “We studied esoteric ideas and living as a community.”
Volunteering at his daughter’s elementary school — he has three daughters — is what led him to a career in music education.
“My middle daughter was in first grade over at Park Side school, and I ended up volunteering to come once a week, bringing my guitar to class. Then the next year, I got hired to do it with all the classrooms. And then I got seen by other school districts, and pretty soon I was working every day of the week, bringing in my guitar and keyboard.”
“Playing for kids beats playing for drunks” in bars, he said. “So I just kept expanding. I ended up hiring two other teachers, and at one point, we were working in 15 schools.”
Though he has ostensibly retired, he still finds himself being pulled back in: last year he and his friend Kim Atkinson helped develop a percussion program for Kawana Springs Elementary in Santa Rosa, and this year he’ll be working at the Kenwood School.
In 2009, Corbett urged then-City Councilmember Larry Robinson to sponsor a declaration, naming Sebastopol Peacetown USA.
“The idea of it is to have a place that incubates peace,” Corbett said. “So you start with the individual getting in touch with peace, then you expand it to the family and then the community.”
Corbett said he’s working on creating a nonprofit that would encourage other towns to become “Peacetowns” as well.
The Peacetown concert series began when Corbett took over a concert series that Sebastopol Center for the Arts had been running. He rechristened them “Peacetown” concerts and moved them to Ives Park.
The series started with just four concerts but grew with each passing year. This year there are 13 concerts.
“It's gotten bigger every year, but the vibe has stayed the same,” Corbett said. “Calling it ‘Peacetown,’ people show up with their best vibe. It’s become a big meet and greet for the town.”
Recently, Corbett has also been sprucing up the Peace Garden, replacing the old laminated paper signs, which were looking rather tatty, with laser cut redwood signs made by Jim Wheaton from Chimera Arts.
An evolving personal philosophy of inner and outer peace
Corbett’s personal philosophy of peace has been years in the making. A true son of the human potential movement, Corbett believes people must cultivate peace within themselves before they can put it out into the world.
Corbett said he meditates every day. He studied transcendental meditation, but said, “Now I mostly just sit and breathe and watch the breath.”
He has studied lots of different spiritual traditions over the years, and his reading these days consists mostly of books on spirituality.
“I studied Course in Miracles. And now I’m kind of working my way through Way of Mastery, which is really kind of an extension of that,” he said.
Music is also part of his spiritual practice of building peace.
“I think the music itself is peace, personified — a vibration. Also getting to hang out with kindergarten to third grade kids for 25 years and just getting to bring the joy out of them through music was definitely one of those things that fed my sense of peace,” he said.
Over the years, his political philosophy has become decidedly pacifistic as well.
“What I tell people is, ‘Don’t fight against the evil; build up the good.’ Because, I mean, every day, you can get mad about something, right? And your anger doesn’t get you very far, and once you start fighting against evil, you’re actually feeding the fight as it were. But if you’re building the peace, you’re growing the good, the holy and the beautiful. Plus you’ll feel a lot better.”