Pete Seeger in my life

Pete Seeger with his banjo. (Photo via Wikipedia, no licensing.)

Pete Seeger with his banjo. (Photo via Wikipedia, no licensing.)

From my earliest memories, there’s Pete Seeger. In the wake of his death, all kinds of robust tributes and complete obituaries filling the media. I don’t know all the details of his life, but I can share some of the points in my life when Pete Seeger motivated and inspired me.

Sometime in the ’50s, my introduction to Pete Seeger. My parents took me to a concert in support of SANE (an organization that opposed nuclear weapons proliferation). I was too young to remember the venue: perhaps Town Hall in NYC. I would understand later that my father loved Pete Seeger because their lives shared common points of experience.

During the 1930s, so many well-meaning progressive young people had joined or worked with the Communist Party. Most came to reject that Party because the words and idealism promoted by the Party did not match the actions.

Pete Seeger and my father were both (albeit briefly) members of the Party in the 1930s. I know both were motivated by a desire to help those suffering most deeply because of the Depression. Both were motivated by a desire to see the poor earn a living, the powerless find justice, and the world afford all people the same human rights.

Both Pete Seeger and my father were blacklisted during the McCarthy era. This was so much a part of my childhood that I am inclined to conflate into my sense of family all who resisted the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Pete, in my memory, was an uncle or at least close family friend. Neither was true, but that’s the way it felt when I was a kid.

Around 1960, as a young teenager, I attended another concert, this one outside on Martha’s Vineyard where my parents rented a house for a few weeks each summer. Under the tent, in a picturesque and middle class northern setting, he lit the fire in me to do something about all of those young black people struggling for civil rights in Mississippi and Alabama. In 1963, I joined the tens of thousands who gathered on the mall in Washington, DC to support that struggle for civil rights and to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. give his iconic “I have a dream” speech. Pete Seeger, of course, was there.

Bob Dylan with Pete Seeger. (Photo via Wikipedia, no licensing.)

Bob Dylan with Pete Seeger. (Photo via Wikipedia, no licensing.)

Either just before or just after that march, I attended a Pete Seeger concert in Carnegie Hall and he turned the stage over to a young artist I had seen perform in a Greenwich Village cafe. The young man sang, “The Times They Are A’ Changing” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Seeger and Dylan joined forces on one of the standards of the folk repertoire (can’t remember what that was). Within the week I had purchased Bob Dylan’s first album.

In 1965, with the voice of Seeger in my mind’s ear, I joined the Selma march in Alabama. Again, I don’t remember if Pete Seeger joined us for the conclusion in Montgomery, but if he wasn’t there in person, I know wherever he was he was singing and talking about the work going on across the south to secure equal rights and justice for people of all colors.

During the ’60s, whether working for civil rights or questioning the war in Vietnam, Seeger was a presence on my landscape. The standard-bearer.

In the ’70s, as so many people did after the first Earth Day, I turned my attention to environmental concerns. I followed Pete Seeger’s work with the Clearwater and the effort to clean up the mighty Hudson River.

For all of his presence in my life, I never met Pete Seeger until he performed with his grandson at the Adirondack Museum in 2000. NCPR was a co-sponsor of the event and I was emcee. I found myself awestruck. I shook his hand, thanked him for being in Blue Mountain Lake, for his life’s work, and, no doubt as thousands of other people had through the years, told him what a key role he had played in my life. What makes me happiest when I think about that day is that my 14 year old son was there and vividly remembers the occasion. Indeed, boasts that he met Pete Seeger.

Pete Seeger at Newport Folk Festival in the '60s. (Photo via Wikipedia, no licensing.)

Pete Seeger at Newport Folk Festival in the ’60s. (Photo via Wikipedia, no licensing.)

That’s what Seeger was all about: offering a different role model for youngsters, a role model with heart and depth beyond the icons of popular culture and politics, a role model who worked for peace and justice and human understanding and communication. Whether you agreed with all of Pete Seeger’s political ideas–and most people in the US would see themselves as far to the right of those ideas–I think we embrace him as a national treasure because the commitment to human dignity and the well-being of our planet is not about party politics.

I can sound pretty sentimental writing about Pete Seeger. But the Pete Seeger I remember was not sentimental. He was strong, courageous, and asked the most of himself, with the expectation that other people would do the same. From those early days of SANE rallies, what Seeger was saying was, “I’m doing this. I’m not exceptional. You can do it, too.”

I’ve been trying ever since.

9 Comments on “Pete Seeger in my life”

  1. Jeff says:

    He’ll be missed but he had a great run. For some reason I remember how I first heard one of his songs (If I Had A Hammer) over 50 years ago, from another kid in his family car. I don’t know why I was there- I was young. Repetition of they song by other groups fused it in my mind. As I came to recognize him I never saw hostility that would repulse me but still there was determination and discontent.

  2. Michael Greer says:

    Years ago, in the first year we lived here in the North Country, a group of us from Russell drove over to Clayton to see Pete Seeger, and, despite performing in a steel quanset arena, Oh my God, what a great show he put on. After two great sets, he finally played an encore number, and got so much applause that he played another. The crowd was exuberant in the extreme, and so he played another…and then a fourth. When the applause, stomping and jumping finally subsided, Pete said, “If you folks don’t have anything better to do, I’d just as soon play some more music.” He went on to play another full set, and didn’t finish up until well after midnight.
    Bless his long and generous life.

  3. michael owen says:

    My Dad was a big fan so I was brought up hearing Big Muddy in early adolescence. It definitely shaped me, nobody was more relived than my parents when I announced I was not entering any branch of the armed services whatever the consequences. So in some goofy way Pete Seeger may have saved my life, and who knows who else’s in the desperate, idiotic confusion of Vietnam.

  4. Dan Sullivan-Catlin says:

    For several years in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, we went to the annual Hudson River Clearwater Revival, which supported one of Pete Seeger’s causes, the clean up of the Hudson River. One of the things that drew me back year after year was the Walkabout Singers. Led by Pete himself, this group of musicians and singers wandered between the stages, encouraging everyone to join in the song. Standing in that circle singing with Pete Seeger was truly special.

  5. Nancy Bernstein says:

    I came of age working and living on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. I was fortunate to sail and sing along with Pete, visit his homestead up on the hill in Beacon, even play his banjo. He and Toshi profoundly inspired me over the years, and my life is the better for it. While we all knew this day would come, Pete just kept playing like he would live forever. Certainly his legacy will. But now it is time for the rest of his to keep on keeping on.

  6. Tony Goodwin says:

    I heard Pete Seeger in concert with Arlo Guthrie in New Orleans in 1972. It was a benefit concert for the McGovern campaign. I didn’t manage to avoid becoming a member of the armed services, but fortunately never got any closer to Viet Nam than Fort Polk in Louisiana. I was driving to New Orleans on a Friday evening with some army buddies when I happened to hear on the radio that this concert was going to be that night. They did know who Arlo was, but had never heard of Pete. I assured them it would be a good concert, we went, and it was indeed memorable. We even heard Jim Kweskin (without the jug band) before first Pete, then joined by Arlo, and finally Arlo alone to round out the concert.

  7. Robert Hoffman says:

    Thank you, Ellen, for sending your remembrance of Pete Seeger to “the cloud”. Being a half-generation later, my introduction to him was with Bob Dylan, The Byrds, and through the rest of “my country” in the streets singing We Shall Overcome”.

    His words were (are) both personal and worldwide: personal to himself, personal to those who listened to his message. And, worldwide to the billions that were (and still are) captured by the purity and practice of his message.

    I often think of my “not meeting” Pete Seeger. In the mid 80’s, while living in a two-room hovel in rural Reva VA., I received a call. The president of the Rappahannock Assn. for the Arts and the Community (RAAC) asked if I could put Mr. Seeger up for the nite. What an honor!; I said no. My logic?…it was mid-winter, the woodstove was cranking, there was minimal comfort, and (to me) he was quite old to handle such a situation.

    In retrospect, my hovel was four-star compared to a boxcar; I made a mistake. Pete has now passed, but that’s OK. The spirit he has left for us continues to endure time and, more importantly, generations. This beauty is concrete-cast, one we will still fertilize into blossom and send forward.

  8. Anita says:

    Thank you, Ellen, for writing this. I think it probably comes as close to capturing the essence of the man as anything I’ve read.

    My sister says that Pete Seeger was part of the soundtrack for my family, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know of his music. I was very lucky to see him live at the Eastman Theater in Rochester when I was a teenager. I’m grateful to have been shaped in part by his music and his values.

  9. Pete Seeger was one of the great truth tellers of our time. His courageous refusal to capitulate to McCarthyist terror is a large reason why he’s so widely lionized.

Comments are closed.