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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