Pete Seeger: In Memoriam, An Interview from 2001 (Reprise)

Hudson Valley remembers the legendary folk musician and environmental activist




pete seeger and the rivertown kidsSing out! Pete Seeger (second from right) accompanies the Rivertown Kids in concert
Courtesy of Rivertown Kids

On January 28, just a few days before this issue was sent to the printer, the news that Pete Seeger had passed away the previous evening reached our offices. Celebrated throughout the world as a renowned singer and champion of folk music — and equally respected as a political, social, and environmental activist — the 94-year-old Seeger was also a 62-year resident of Beacon. “It really has been like living in heaven here,” he told us in 2001, as he described how he built a two-room log cabin at the base of Mount Beacon, which became his family’s home — and where he still lived. “We were very glad to have found such a nice little community.” Read the entire interview below; for a collection of stories from the community, visit hvmag.com/peteseeger.

Our April issue will include a tribute to this American icon and tireless advocate for the Hudson Valley. In the meantime, we extend condolences to Seeger’s family and friends.

The following was originally published in the January 2001 issue of Hudson Valley Magazine as part of our cover story, “Why We Are One.”

“Like Living in Heaven Here”

A conversation with Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger is a monumental American hero: a banjo-wielding encyclopedia of folk songs from around the world and a tireless organizer and supporter of political, social, and environmental causes whose ideological consistency stands out in an age of wind-vane political activism.

Now 81, but still a popular entertainer of children and adults alike, Seeger has influenced and inspired several generations of folksingers with his work. Although his once bell-like voice has lost much of its force in recent years, he still maintains a rigorous schedule of appearances and performances. Many of his classic recordings have been reissued as CDs.

Seeger spearheaded efforts to clean up the Hudson River back in 1969 when he led a small crew of stalwarts on the Clearwater, a replica of the sloops that once traveled up and down the river, and preached the dire necessity of eliminating the widespread practice of dumping pollutants in the water. Soon afterwards, he inaugurated the annual Great Clearwater Hudson River Revival folk festival, which has raised eco-awareness and money for Clearwater’s mission.

A conversation with Pete Seeger is part history lesson and part polemic, with some measure of bravado thrown in, along with tangents aplenty and a few songs performed a cappella.

When did you move to Beacon, Dutchess County, and why?
My parents lived in various apartments in New York City, but as a child I spent a great deal of time, and practically the entire summer, living with my grandparents in Patterson (in Putnam County). I always thought of their house, along with the big barn of theirs, as my real home. So when my wife and I started looking for a house to buy, back some 52 years now, we looked in Putnam and Dutchess counties.

Some nice real estate agents took us around and showed us places that cost near $5,000, but we couldn’t afford them, and then they showed us some places that cost only $3,000 and we were embarrassed because we couldn’t afford those either. In 1949, on Memorial Day, we found this piece of land: 17 acres going up Beacon Mountain from Route 9D. It was cheap at just $100 an acre because the land was so steep.

Much of the land was comprised of abandoned brickyards, and for the most part it had all been logged back in 1911. When we found the property, though, new trees were growing out of the stumps, and they were just right for a log cabin. We spent two summers building it, and in 1952 we moved in.
There was no electricity or running water, but there was a brook about 100 yards away from the house. My wife’s parents had jobs as caretakers in a children’s camp not too far away, and for a while that’s where we bathed.

We were very glad to have found such a nice little community — there were just a few hundred people living here when we moved in. I became a member of the Dutchess Junction Volunteer Fire Department, and together my wife and I raised our three kids in this two-room log cabin. My youngest granddaughter, in fact, was born right on the floor here, surrounded by a midwife and lots of family.

It really has been like living in heaven here. We’ve got a great panoramic view. We can look over the Shawangunk Ridge to the Catskill Mountains 45 miles away, or look up the river to the Poughkeepsie Bridge 18 miles away, or look south and just make out the rear end of Storm King Mountain. If we climb up the hill in the back of our house, well, the whole mountain is a state park, and that’s where we built the Clearwater in May 1969.

Have you ever thought of living anywhere else?
First of all, I was never enthusiastic about moving around from one place to another. I liked how my grandparents lived decade after decade in one spot, and plus I traveled a lot and appreciated knowing what I was coming home to. So, you can say that I take a dim view on American mobility. I think this idea of moving from town to town for better deals, better houses, is s--t for the birds, and you can quote me.

I once heard you sing a verse of “This Land is Your Land” that you said Woody Guthrie wrote but was rarely sung.
That’s the song’s final verse. It goes like this (singing):

“Was a great high wall there that tried to stop me,
Was a great big sign there, said ‘Private Property,’
But on the other side it didn’t say nuthin’.
That side was made for you and me.”

Woody wrote “This Land is Your Land” in 1940 as an answer to Kate Smith and her rendition of “God Bless America.” He wrote it in the Hanover House, a cheapie hotel in Manhattan where he was living then, and he copied it into my notebook and signed it. In 1949 he finally recorded the song for Folkways, and that was the first time I ever heard him sing it.

Do you think New York State officials are interested in protecting the Hudson Valley?
You bet they are. The real estate alone is worth billions and billions of dollars. What the state shouldn’t be happy about is when new buildings are constructed that block the view of the river. It doesn’t matter if these new buildings are 100 feet or a mile or two back from the river; the idea is that their construction should be spaced out on the landscape, that they shouldn’t be allowed to be bunched together.

What saddens me in particular is that families who have lived in the Valley for 200 years or more sometimes can’t afford to live here any longer. We have rent control — why not tax control? It’s unnecessary and wrong to tell people they have to live somewhere else if where they’re living becomes unaffordable to them because of taxes.

Is the region being over-developed?
Of course it is. Over-development is the biggest threat to the whole world. Again, it’s a matter of inventions. But who can I complain to? The Chamber of Commerce of Lower Dutchess County? Maybe we should see if we can double everything in quality instead of quantity.

What unites us all together in the Hudson Valley?
A beautiful river. And money unites us, too, because we live near cities where there are jobs. Reliance on transportation to those jobs, especially rail lines running north and south, unites us. The good and the bad now are so tangled up that it is hard to see the wisdom of the human race sometimes.

In 100 years, the entire region could very well look like Manhattan; after all, it took only 125 years for the population of New York City to go from 25,000 people to three million. Putnam County’s population doubled in just 17 years. What are we going to do about this? If only I knew the answer!

 

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