Pete Seeger: Folk Singer, Activist, American Treasure
A first-person appreciation of the folk-music hero, written by a former staffer at Seeger’s Clearwater environmental organization
Pete Seeger died after a long life — long enough to lead the folk music revival and bring tireless and ardent support to the civil rights movement, protests against the Vietnam War, efforts to clean up the Hudson River, and many other important issues and initiatives, both local and national. He was an activist who believed in “the power of song” and deftly understood that it could be employed in the never-ending struggle for social justice and the protection of human rights.
Seeger performed for audiences across the nation from the 1940s until just weeks before his passing in January. Schoolchildren, campers, college students, union workers, concertgoers — his popularity was multigenerational and cross-cultural. He mastered an ability to lead sing-alongs that brought people together for a common purpose and served to show that they were part of something bigger.
Pete was also able to transcend the relative isolation most celebrities experience and require. He was friendly and approachable, albeit hard-of-hearing in later years; easy to say hello to as he strode from stage to stage at Croton Point Park, carrying both his banjo and 12-string guitar, during yet another annual edition of the Great Hudson River Revival, the music festival he started with his wife Toshi. He was maybe even a little on the long-winded side if you caught him at the right moment and hit on the right subject.
As a journalist, I interviewed Pete at length several times. And later, as communications director for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, I was near his side as he celebrated his 90th birthday with a major fund-raising concert at Madison Square Garden, and when he marked the 40th anniversary of the launch of the Clearwater. It was obvious that he did not like standing in the spotlight, though, and he always endeavored to deflect the attention.
I never considered myself a friend of his, but I think Pete appreciated our conversations. I certainly did! He had a very quick mind, and his deep knowledge of myriad subjects made him seem encyclopedic at times. But his genuine humility and unrelenting optimism impressed me most.
For friends and strangers alike, if you wanted to talk to Pete on the phone, you had to pass muster with Toshi first. She was a tenacious gatekeeper with a long-standing animus for journalists, going back to the Red Scare era when Pete was blacklisted and excoriated in the press. In order to secure an interview for this magazine back in 2001, I mentioned my acquaintance with folk singer/banjo player Rik Palieri, who had worked with Pete and the Sloop Singers in the mid-1970s. It worked! Toshi passed the phone to Pete. A few weeks after my interview, I received a long letter from him detailing an idea for a floating swimming pool in the Hudson off the Beacon shoreline — which finally opened, thanks to Pete and other community supporters, in 2007.
Pete Seeger was never far away from his banjo, and is seen here with it in 1955; below, Seeger performs in California in the 1950s
Pete didn’t talk much until you initiated a conversation; sometimes I’d get him started by asking what he was presently reading
Sticking with an idea and seeing it to completion was typical of Pete. Launching the Sloop Clearwater, a 75-foot replica of the cargo vessels that coursed the river long ago, to galvanize support for cleaning up the river was another example of this. After the Clearwater was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, I met Pete and Vic Schwarz on a cool and windy spring day at Croton Point Park to talk about the sloop for a newspaper article. “Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring turned around our thinking,” Pete told me that day. “Before that, we were hoping that the meek would inherit the earth. But then we realized that if the meek did inherit the earth, it would be a poisonous dump and the air wouldn’t be worth inhaling.” Then 85, Pete was no longer sailing, and Schwarz said he hadn’t been on the Clearwater in many years. That didn’t stop two old friends from reminiscing about the sloop, and I felt honored to sit at a picnic table with them while they talked and talked.
Two years later, John Hall hired me as his press secretary during his first congressional campaign. Pete was a frequent visitor at the Beacon campaign office; he vaguely remembered me, but when I told him I’d moved over from journalism to work for Hall, he thanked me for doing so. Occasionally I’d update Pete on campaign activities, and he’d flash a mischievous smile, feeling perhaps that another underdog might possibly win the day. Hall and the campaign staff loved Pete’s visits. He would usually park near the office, then skip — yes, skip — down the sidewalk to the hardware store on an errand, then skip back up to the office to say hello.
At the end of 2008, I landed the job at Clearwater, and became acquainted with the Beacon Sloop Club members, who kept up a lively calendar of potluck dinners, lectures, and concerts, often raising funds for one progressive cause or another. After being invited to some of these events, I realized that Pete and Toshi were the First Couple of potluck suppers; although he was tall and thin, Pete loved to eat plain, simple food — stews, soups, homemade bread, fresh fruit.
My new job presented formidable challenges in preparation for a banner year. To increase presence in the media, I started to line up press conferences detailing the environmental organization’s new initiatives, and would invite Pete to be present and offer comments. This meant removing some breakfast crumbs from his beard before the reporters showed up.
I tried once to get Pete to follow some “talking points” — choice phrases I’d written for him to go along with the press event’s intended “message.” I realized this was a mistake when I saw that he kept my script folded in front of him, reading glasses still in his pocket. Pete simply listened to what everyone else said and then added his own perspective. At other press conferences, this meant he often veered into subject areas that were decidedly “off-message,” for which he would apologize to me later. But no matter. The news reporters and TV crews came to see and hear Pete, and Clearwater got ink as a result.
Planning for Pete’s grand 90th birthday concert on May 3 in New York City began early in 2009. My responsibilities included the making of two short films that would be shown on the Madison Square Garden Jumbotron before and during the concert. I recruited actress Debra Winger, an Irvington resident, to interview Pete for the project. We filmed in March at the lodge of the University Settlement Camp in Beacon, where Toshi’s parents had once lived and worked. Pete showed up late wearing his standard uniform — dungarees with an all-purpose bandana hanging out of a pocket, work boots, flannel shirt, moth-bitten sweater, and gray wool cap to keep his noggin warm in the unheated lodge. Winger, who had never met him before, talked with Pete about the sloop and cleaning up the Hudson. The dozen or so people present at the filming could sense it was a special occasion. I’m not sure Pete knew much about Winger’s film career, but he had an extra twinkle in his eye that day.
Although the birthday concert at Madison Square Garden was a huge success, Pete agreed to participate in it solely to raise funds for Clearwater, which needed money to perform some major repairs on the sloop. I helped run the press interviews with the 40-plus musical guests on hand that night. When Pete came in for his interviews, I greeted him and wished him happy birthday. He looked comfortable while responding to the press. After starting his performance by softly playing a Native American song on a wooden flute, Pete was expected to lead the assembled musicians in a grand finale. He seemed to be pacing himself; it was his 90th birthday, after all.
A month later, a smaller gathering — held to rechristen the Clearwater — brought out many of the Seegers’ friends and former crewmembers of the sloop. The rechristening was highlighted by Pete and Allan Anapu, the first captain of the sloop, performing a bawdy version of “Sloop John B” aboard the docked Clearwater for the collected guests and well-wishers.
I had a few more occasions to talk with Pete before I left Clearwater in March 2010. When he came by the offices for a meeting, he liked to linger, probably to give Toshi some time to herself. Pete didn’t talk much until you initiated a conversation, and most of the Clearwater staff stood in silent awe of him. I knew he liked to talk about politics, history, and music; sometimes I’d get him started by asking what he was presently reading, or what he thought about a significant current event in the news. Both Seeger’s father and grandfather were musicologists; Pete had dropped out of Harvard to collect field recordings for the Library of Congress with Alan Lomax, the famed ethnomusicologist. Mention of any of these individuals, Woody Guthrie, the Almanac Singers, or the Weavers, would get Pete reminiscing and elucidating. He had all of this incredible information stored in his mind, but retrieval necessitated some time and patient curiosity on the part of the interlocutor.
I thought about a lot of this, my Pete memories, as I waited in line in February outside of a funeral home in Beacon, ready to pay my respects to Pete. I purposely dressed casually, accent on the dungarees and work shirt, because Pete had once told me that he didn’t like to see me wearing a necktie. “Too business-like,” he said.