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Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

The seeds are sown

Last Updated: 03/04/2014 4:23 pm
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Pete Seeger and friends at the finale of the 2013 Summer Hoot. - SCOTT HARRIS
  • Scott Harris
  • Pete Seeger and friends at the finale of the 2013 Summer Hoot.

We all knew the day would come. We dreaded the thought of it, and braced ourselves as best we could, even though we knew it would be difficult. And so it came: January 27, 2014, the day Pete Seeger left us. It's so hard to fathom that he's really gone. Human mortality aside, it always seemed our beloved folk music patriarch and benevolent pillar of social and environmental justice would be right here, on the planet he so loved and worked to improve, with us, its people, who he loved just as much and fought just as selflessly for.

Of course, Pete will never really leave us. Because whenever we see an individual—or, indeed, a union of individuals—fighting for equality and basic human rights, whenever we hear someone raising his or her voice in song on their behalf, and whenever we find ourselves moved by and valuing our beautiful Hudson River and the Earth through which it flows, we'll also be looking at the indelible image of Pete Seeger himself. And we'll be hearing his voice as well. During the course of my twin careers in the fields of journalism and music I've encountered numerous figures of note—some who seemed bigger than life, some who seemed nonchalant and down to earth. When I interviewed Pete for Chronogram in 2010, he was somehow both. "A sower of seeds," he called himself when talking about his role among us, adding that "some seeds fall on stones and don't even sprout, but some seeds fall on fallow ground and multiply a hundredfold." It's up to us to water those seeds and nurture their fruits. Thanks, Pete, for showing us how.

Here are some thoughts on Pete Seeger, his passing, and his legacy from some of our Hudson Valley friends who knew, worked with, and continue to be inspired by him.

—Peter Aaron

Peggy Seeger, Happy Traum, Pete Seeger.
  • Peggy Seeger, Happy Traum, Pete Seeger.

I don't know where I'd be today if it wasn't for Pete Seeger. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have started singing folk songs or playing the guitar and banjo, and there certainly would not have been a lifetime of writing, performing, traveling, teaching, and innumerable musical adventures. I might not have even met my wife, Jane, whom I originally encountered through folk music. I owe it all to Pete. Back in 1954, some high school friends took me to a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. There, on stage, was this tall, skinny guy, standing alone in the spotlight before hundreds of young people, playing his long-neck banjo and singing for, and more important, with, the crowd. He sang about all manner of things that I had never heard addressed before, and his energy, enthusiasm, and engagement with the audience captivated me, electrified me. I suddenly saw music in a whole new light. It could address social issues and relate to the joys and sorrows, the history and universality, of people everywhere. I watched Pete on stage and I thought, "I can do this too!" As I sang along on "Wimoweh," "Wasn't That a Time," "If I Had a Hammer," and "Goodnight Irene," I felt the thrill of being part of something vast and important. I thought that music was going to change the world.

The next day, I went out and bought a guitar. I found out about Washington Square, went to "hoots" and folk concerts, learned hundreds of songs and sang them with the image of Pete peering over my shoulder. I tried to approximate his stance, his instrumental style, and his cheerleader's approach to group singing. I sang only songs I thought Pete would approve of, and wore his records thin—"Darlin' Cory," "The Goofing Off Suite," "Sodbuster Ballads," and anything I could get my hands on by the Weavers. I sang of solidarity with unions, even though I wasn't a worker; peasant chants—and I certainly wasn't a peasant (never even met one). From today's perspective, this all seems naive and hopelessly outdated, but somewhere deep inside my soul the eternal optimism of Pete's songs still rings true. I think of those old days as sunny and warm, filled with camaraderie, friendship, and idealism, with Pete's warm voice, gentle humor, and thrilling banjo leading our way to a better world. And even if that new world doesn't materialize in our lifetime, I know that one 16-year-old's life was irrevocably changed by the revelation of a lone man on a wide stage, singing his songs and becoming one with his audience. Thanks, Pete. I'll be forever grateful.

—Happy Traum, musician and Homespun Tapes owner

I started quilting my Peace banner during the Gulf War, and it's traveled to marches and candlelight vigils for decades. During the war in Iraq, another mom and I carried it to a rally in Kingston where Pete Seeger was singing (wasn't he always?). It started to rain, and though Pete was unfazed, our children got whiny. Becky held up the banner while I got them cocoa. When Pete came offstage, he walked over and said, "That's a beautiful banner."  Becky replied, "My friend would be honored if you signed it." When I returned with the kids, she showed us the damp scrawl in green pen, with a banjo sketch.

Years later, Chronogram photographer Jennifer May and I collaborated on a book called River of Words: Portraits of Hudson Valley Writers. I wanted to interview Pete, and since he didn't e-mail, I mailed him a card with a snapshot of the Peace banner. Several weeks later, my phone rang, and a bright, reedy tenor said, "This is Pete Seeger."  For reasons I'll never quite understand, I burst out laughing and said, "Well, of course it is." He was tired of interviews, but offered to send us a song for the book. Then he told me a story about the song, and one about the Hudson, and 45 minutes later, he said, "A bunch of us old peaceniks get together on the shoulder of Route 9D every Saturday. Why don't you come down and join us?" So Jen and I did, and he told more stories, and let her take photos, and we stood with Pete Seeger and sang in the rain. I can't imagine anything finer.

—Nina Shengold, Chronogram books editor and author

Pete's our guy, our model. He shows us what responsible citizenry is. For us players, he reminds us that music must move us forward. Yeah, dance your ass off—and then sing something, together. Something with great words.

I once saw Pete at an honorarium for [musician] David Amram. All us pups (me, Josh White, Guy Davis, Tom Paxton) had all done our bit while Pete paced backstage. Finally, at the very end, Pete gets on. The audience snaps to attention. He begins, "I can't sing as well as I used to." The audience starts muttering encouragement. "But I know alotta songs." Now the audience is yelling, stomping. "And you can help me sing." He is drowned out by the applause. Talk about having them from "Hello."

—John Sebastian, musician

Few humans have used music and the power of song as elegantly, as beautifully, and with as much conviction to communicate observations and ideas about this life, this fragile existence that we collectively experience, as Pete Seeger. Pete was a trailblazer, a humanist, a dreamer, a believer, a master musician, a hope machinist, and a poet who used language and harmony to bind this world together one sing-along at a time. His lifelong belief was that the world would not be saved by one big thing but by millions of tiny contributions. Millions of teaspoons heaped on the seesaw, one by one.

It is difficult to say goodbye to a friend. But with Pete's loss I am overwhelmed by a feeling of purpose and the confidence to live my life to its fullest, with the most righteous sense of truth and conviction. With this resolve, felt by millions of Pete's "children" the world round, and with Pete's guiding instructions that can be passed on and on into the distant future, I am well assured that Pete's legacy and vision will endure as long as there are people and singers inhabiting the Earth. As Woody used to say, and as Pete often reiterated, "Take it easy, but take it."

—Mike Merenda of Mike & Ruthy, musician

Pete and Natalie Merchant
  • Pete and Natalie Merchant

[The day of Seeger's death] was a sad day for the Valley, although we had years to prepare for it, the realization that Pete Seeger was gone was difficult to fathom. "Patriarch" is defined as "the oldest and most venerable member of a group or tribe." Pete Seeger was most certainly that to me and so many of my friends and neighbors living here in the Hudson Valley who believe in the transformative power of music and care deeply about our community and the environment.

Because Pete was so generous with himself, so many of us had the privilege and pleasure of being in his company over the years. And there was a glow that came over everyone's faces in his presence, it was the sort of expression you see on the face of a kindergarten child when something delights or astonishes them. Pete was always the oldest and wisest man in the room. He was the best storyteller, he had the best stories, and he encouraged everyone to gather 'round and listen. And when Pete asked you to sing along, you couldn't help but join in. His legacy will be heard and felt every time we sing one of the songs he taught us.

—Natalie Merchant, musician and activist

Between the summer of 2007 and the fall of 2009, I spent crazy hours on the phone with Pete Seeger. We talked about John DeAngelico's Kenmore street guitar shop. We talked about how to plane a piece of ironwood. And we talked about the Republican boot-stomp results of having too many lefty stickers on your instrument case. The conversations wheeled, in one way or another, around Pete's iconic longneck banjo. Eventually, the chats led to the publication of a collection of stories I wrote for Fretboard Journal. But Pete and I also talked about the important things. Cookies. How to make a great salad. Man's fondness for hitting things. We talked about peace, and the lack of it; science; politics; sunshine; Pete's wife Toshi; Peekskill; Woody; the borscht belt in the 1940s; unrest in the 1960s; the sloop Clearwater in the 1980s; and what makes a great song in any decade.

Between the phone calls, we'd run into each other here or there. He was always in motion, always on his way somewhere. That meant he only had half an hour to regale you, instead of hours to spin fascinating yarns. I've come to think of those collected sessions as a second college education. Pete was my teacher. He was our teacher. It will take us lifetimes to truly learn his lessons. But we have to try. Treat yourself. Have a cookie. Then get off your ass and make the world a better place.

Michael Eck, musician and Chronogram contributor

When Pete arrived backstage at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center late on a Saturday night last September it had already been a long weekend for the 94-year-old. He'd done two gigs on Friday, squeezed in a marathon interview with a foreign journalist that morning at his house in Beacon, and was slated to play again on Sunday. Yet despite the hour, despite the fact that his bones were creaking in the light rain, and the crowd of 25,000 strong was the loudest and most lubricated he'd seen in many years. Pete wanted to be there.

As he limbered his fingers on his long-neck banjo backstage, Neil Young stopped in to pay his respects, leaving like a smiling schoolboy showing off the book—Pete's autobiography, Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singalong Memoir—his mentor had personalized. Pete wanted to be there that night because he had something to say. Something about fracking. Rural New York was his backyard. He'd never lived anywhere else but this state. When John Mellencamp brought the surprise guest on stage, 25,000 roared. After a solo version of "If I Had a Hammer," flanked by Mellencamp and Willie Nelson, Dave Mathews and Young, Pete's version of "This Land Is Your Land" included some New York-specific lyrics that, he teased the crowd, "You've never heard before!" The next day, Rolling Stone called Pete's surprise performance "the emotional highlight" of the event. As always with Pete, the message had come first.

—Jon Bowermaster, author and environmental activist

Pete had grown up hearing about the floating bathhouses dotting the perimeter of Manhattan at the turn of the last century, and for much of his life imagined a similar flow-through pool in the Hudson River. He was sure that if people came to the river, swam in it, felt it, they would learn to care for the river. River stewardship, he knew, could begin with knowing what it was to be in the river. And building a small pool for kids seemed to be a good way to start. So with water quality in the Hudson much improved by the late 1990s, he worked with a group of volunteers to design, build, and install a small pool at the river in Beacon. Now, each year since 2004, the group organizes the Great Newburgh to Beacon Cross River Swim to raise money to operate the pool. And each year, Pete would join us at the Newburgh marina to sing a song or two before we jumped into the river. There were kids, teenagers, dad, moms, grandparents, athletes. Each of has our own reason for wanting to swim across that shining river—it could be celebrating a birthday, rejoicing in an anniversary, marking the end of chemo, or just wanting to take a dip in the river. But when Pete sang "This Land Is Your Land," with the wide, gray water streaming behind him, everyone down at the waterfront knew the swim was about something bigger. Even the most seasoned athlete training for a triathlon could be seen tearing up. We all knew the words, the notes, the tunes that run in our veins and in our heritage just as strong and as sure as that current runs in the Hudson. We all sang along. We all felt the power of the river, the power of community, the power of song. And then we all splashed in to the Hudson River.

—Akiko Busch, author of Nine Ways to Cross a River

Pete Seeger at 2013 Summer Hoot
  • Pete Seeger at 2013 Summer Hoot

It was Pete Seeger who inspired me to dedicate myself, as an environmental attorney, to work full time for the Hudson River for the past 15 years. I was at a crossroads professionally when I went to a party honoring Pete at Norrie Point, a beautiful facility right on the Hudson River in Dutchess County. I was trying to decide whether to accept a job offer that would require me to commute crazy hours from my home in Ulster County to Albany, with my son still in high school, to work for the Attorney General to bring a Natural Resources Damages Assessment claim against General Electric for its PCB pollution of the Hudson River.

All who were there shared food and song with Pete, looking out the windows as the sun set on the river. As the evening went on and I thought of how Pete had dedicated, and was continuing to dedicate, so many years of his life to protecting the river, the choice seemed clear, and inevitable: I had to work for the Hudson as well. While I don’t remember a specific conversation, he inspired me. The sharing of this experience with Pete was a large part of the reason I ultimately agreed to make the sacrifices to take the job, and I have never looked back. I’ve been working on the Hudson River ever since.

Kate Hudson, director of Riverkeeper’s Watershed Program

The indelible link from Pete Seeger to my mother started in childhood: his songs were my first soundtrack, clearly soothing my agitated mother (Vietnam still raged) with their singalong spirit. My mother was a fervent peace demonstrator; vehemently anti-war; adamantly pacifist. But when Pete sang of fighting for justice, he brought out her warrior spirit. She’d hum along, privately joining his call to arms. He was such her beacon of hope that when I announced my pending move to Woodstock, she tempered her disappointment with, “Well, Pete Seeger lives around there.” And I kept trying to go see him, running into people who played with him, knew him; wondered if someday I’d meet him—and could then tell her.

As she began to lose her own war, I was in closer proximity to Seeger than ever before: the Klezmatics’ album of Woody Guthrie songs, Wonder Wheel, was being produced, some in my house. Stories of Guthrie and Seeger poured like wine. The album’s title seemed to embody that cycle of hope carrying us onward. Visiting my mother, those and Seeger’s songs kept us company: I hummed Irene, goodnight as my mother faded. Just after she’d died, feeling like the mighty wheel was mighty cruel, I went to a benefit in Kingston: the Klezmatics were playing with Seeger. Too late for Mom, I’d finally see him. I sat there reeling until he started to sing. As his frail voice rang out, I swear I heard her humming along.

Jana Martin, Chronogram contributor and author of Russian Lover

Pete Seeger was a spreader of memes that reflected goodness, pure intention, integrity and loving kindness. He was a realist and an activist, but chose to use catchy music and poetry to change the reality and revive a tradition of using music to adjust politics. Life imitating art. He helped generations of people learn about their own folk music tradition, empowered people to sing and play folk music, and spread memes of positive change, reverence for life, nature, and community. When you hear an earworm pop hit on the radio that spreads a destructive or valueless message, take a moment to think of what it might mean for someone to resist that kind of cultural void and the destructive principles that cause people to create messages of garbage that we consume as music. Not just resist it, but empower others to resist it by learning to make music.

Our culture has become increasingly cheap, inauthentic, and greedy, and a powerfully integral popular presence like Pete Seeger allowed us to believe that someone would always be there to write the good kids’ songs, lay the right values into popular music, say the right thing, create with integrity, spread memes and messages that do good and not harm. Somebody always had the machine that surrounded the hate with love and forced it to surrender. We could relax about that, and now we cannot. We don’t have another Pete Seeger at the ready, and that’s the saddest thing. Who’s going to step in and force hate to surrender now? Who will even try?

Liv Carrow, musician

Few humans have used music, and the power of song as elegantly, as beautifully, and with as much conviction to communicate observations and ideas about this life, this fragile existence that we collectively experience, as Pete Seeger. Pete was a trailblazer, a humanist, a dreamer, a believer, a master musician, a hope machinist, and a poet who used language and harmony to bind this world together one singalong at a time. His lifelong belief was that the world would not be saved by one big thing but by millions of tiny contributions. Millions of teaspoons heaped on the see-saw, one by one.

It is difficult to say goodbye to a friend. But with Pete’s loss I am overwhelmed by a feeling of purpose and the confidence to live my life to its fullest with the most righteous sense of truth and conviction. With this resolve, felt by millions of Pete’s “children” the world round, and with Pete’s guiding instructions that can be passed on and on into the distant future, I am well assured that Pete’s legacy and vision will endure as long as there are people and singers inhabiting the Earth. As Woody used to say, and as Pete often reiterated, “Take it easy, but take it.”

Mike Merenda of Mike & Ruthy, musician

pete_jim-rice.jpg

It was April 2013 and Pete Seeger was playing in Schenectady with his half sister Peggy Seeger. I had no doubt the show would do well: With him being almost 94 then, his appearances were not to be missed. So I was surprised when the promoters offered Radio Woodstock a live, in-studio interview with Pete. “Yes, of course,” was the immediate answer. Pete arrived with his daughter Tinya. He came in carrying his homemade banjo, the one with “This Machine Surrounds Hate with Love and Forces it to Surrender” written on the head, and a handful of fliers for the concert. He put the fliers on a table we have for such things and expressed hope that people would come to the show. I was amazed: All those years of performing, all the adoration, and underneath it all was an artist with insecurity like any other. I offered to carry his banjo but he shook me off.

We chatted about the concert and of maple syruping. The syrup season was off to a good start, after a poor one the year before, and Pete expressed gratitude that his daughter could help him with collecting the pails of sap and the boiling it. It was clear, though, that Pete still had a hand in the process. And then he sang in a wonderful, clear, and shaky voice, exhorting the invisible-to-him radio audience to sing along, just as if he was on stage in front of thousands. Ever the observer, I smiled but didn’t sing too. I wish I had.

—Jimmy Buff, program director, Radio Woodstock

I played several times at Pete Seeger’s Clearwater Festival, and a couple times on the Clearwater Sloop itself. Each time, I copped Pete’s method of call and response, getting kids and their parents to sing loudly in their outside voices, which never fails to energize even the most modern person, often to their great surprise. At the festival Pete walked around with an old-dude grace that captivated me; like Levon, he never lost his mojo, he remained —I’ll just say it—sexy, which gives a fella a very specific kind of encouragement.

It was nigh impossible to process all Pete’s contributions. Like trying to comprehend the force of the Hudson itself. At Clearwater I played on the banks of that mighty river, and in those charmed days, on those shores and refreshed by his spirit, I could begin to process the magnitude of Pete’s work, and I felt more honored than ever to be a musician, to be a part of his stubborn dream made manifest.

Robert Burke Warren, musician and Chronogram contributor

My husband Ira has a long history with Pete. Ira’s Mom, Karyl Eaglefeathers, helped to revive the Catskill Mountain Folk Festival in the 1970s, which Pete performed at several times. Since then, our family has enjoyed many opportunities to play, sing, and just spend time with Pete over the years. On one occasion, Ira was performing with Pete and our son Charley (who was two or three at the time), figured he oughta join them. So he hopped up on stage, grabbed a harmonica that happened to be sitting there, and started blowing. The harmonica was in the wrong key for the tune. Hearing the dissonance, Pete jerked his head around to see who was making that noise. Upon seeing little Charley playing his heart out, Pete turned back around, kept on playing and singing, taking it all in stride. When they finished the tune, Pete pointed to Charley saying, “Someday this kid is going to save this world.”

We all feel bereft at Pete’s death, yes. But Pete passed the torch long ago. I see it in people like Ira’s cousin Mollie, a dairy farmer who finds the time to take her kids to anti-fracking rallies. I see it in the Clearwater Revival volunteers who show up, year after year, families in tow because they know no vacation package can touch the experience of teaching kids to make stone soup. There is so much about Pete that we will miss. But when your life’s work leaves a legacy like his, chances are that someday one of those kids is going to save this world.

—Laurie McIntosh, musician and storyteller

I never met Pete formally, but he came to Rosendale whenever we seemed to need him. I think he liked our town, enough to forget his banjo in 2000 after a political rally. The world watched as Rosendale got it back to him, unharmed, perhaps our best accomplishment. Pete came back in 2008 to do a fundraiser for his ailing friend Utah Phillips, a fellow musician, historian, and humorist. The highlight was Utah phoning in and Pete holding the phone up to the mike so Utah could speak to the crowd, giving us encouragement and strength, even as we would soon lose this exceptional man. The feeling between Pete and Utah was as palpable and crisp as one of those Clearwater pumpkins you buy in October.

Pete retuned again, this time to the Rosendale Theater for a movie premier. They gave Pete an award of some kind, which was not easy, as he was uncomfortable accepting awards. His friends brought him to the cafe afterward for something warm to drink, a hot chocolate. We leaned against the waiter’s station for a few minutes and watched the singer on stage. Pete listened thoughtfully and smiled over the scene. There are times when you wake up from your personal tribulations and suddenly realize you’re in the best place you could be. That’s how it felt hanging out there with him for that little while. I don’t remember us speaking. I might have asked him if he’d like another hot chocolate. That drink was on the house, for the all the houses and souls he’d warmed up with his light.

— Mark Morganstern, Rosendale Cafe owner

It was very early in the morning in 1975 at the Great Hudson River Revival. I was new to the festival, helping a friend set up the Activist Area. Anticipation and excitement prevented me from sleeping, so I left my tent and began to walk around the grounds. I noticed a man in a distant grassy field who was bending over and picking things up. As we drew closer, I realized it was Pete Seeger. He put his hand out and said, “Good morning, I’m Pete, who are you?” I introduced myself and realized that what I had observed from a distance was Pete collecting bits of paper and other trash left on the ground. As we continued to walk and pick up anything that was not grass, I listened while Pete talked about the festival and what it meant for the river. He spoke about the health of people living in the Hudson Valley and the impact that the festival could have beyond the local region, and about how children deserved to live in a healthier and a peaceful world. Pete finally stopped, looked at me and asked, “What do you think?” I said, “Thanks for waking me up.” He laughed and said, “I have to go now and do some practicing. I’ll be seeing you around.” I said, “I’m sure you will.”

—Roy Volpe, Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival Festival

In 1996 I took the job as the Clearwater Festival’s event coordinator not knowing that this path would present me the rare opportunity of working closely with Pete and Toshi Seeger, to observe and learn from their uniquely special partnership. The Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival was totally their vision, one that they cherished deeply. For over four decades, they fiercely preserved its integrity as the premier music and environmental festival.

In my first year at the helm I was given the charge to move the festival back to the river. It had been exiled inland at the Westchester Community College for a decade, a river festival without a river or the Clearwater Sloop. In 1999, with Pete and Toshi’s encouragement and support, Revival triumphantly moved back to it original home, Croton Point Park on banks of the Hudson River where it has flourished since. In the festival’s years back on the river, I sought Pete and Toshi’s advice, ideas and suggestions often. They would welcome me to their Beacon home and while enjoying Toshi’s freshly baked muffins, I would listen as they gave me wise guidance regarding the booking of performances, the layout of the festival or even how to improve the map. They always kept a watchful eye on the festival, no detail was too small.

It was an incredible honor to work so closely with Pete and Toshi for my eleven years as Clearwater’s Festival Director. Their friendship was a gift I will treasure always.

—Ron Aja, Former Clearwater Festival Director

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