I Publius: Salute to the great Pete Seeger
Happy 90th birthday, Pete Seeger! I have loved this man and his music since I was 14 years old and first heard him playing the banjo at Buck’s Rock Work Camp. Once I heard him, I couldn’t get enough. I borrowed “The Weavers at Carnegie Hall,” “The Weavers on Tour,” and every other Pete Seeger record I could find from the library so many times that I think I drove my whole family crazy. I played them over and over again back then and I still play them all over and over again today. I have loaded my iPod with most of Pete’s recordings. Our group, The Berkshire Ramblers, plays very little that isn’t connected to Pete.
I once sang one of Pete’s songs to the campers at the Ocean Beach Youth Group on Fire Island on one of my days off from my job at the Bronx House Camps in nearby Copake, N.Y. The song was “Abiyoyo.” Since I didn’t know every word, I just changed the whole thing around. As I remember it, in my version we fooled the monster, Abiyoyo, into eating all the toxins out of the Great South Bay by feeding him toilet paper soaked in catsup. So Pete came to Fire Island and one of the campers took him sailing and told him my version.
He loved it and wrote a whole column in Sing Out! Magazine about how I changed the words, citing it as a good example of the “folk process.”
Many years later when I really got to know Pete because of our interviews for WAMC, I was up at his mountaintop house and told him that story. He looked at me with amazement and said, “You’re the counselor?” I used to write him letters as a teenager and either he or his remarkable wife, Toshi, would answer them. That kind of personal attention is amazing when you consider all of the fan mail he must have received.
In college, I wrote a major paper on Pete Seeger and the First Amendment. When everyone else was running from the witch hunters who were putting people in jail because of what they said or thought, Pete stood tall and looked them in the eye. They tried to send him to jail but they didn’t get away with it.
But it is at WAMC that we owe Pete the most. He has recorded five wonderful conversations with us, talking about his life and time, and he allowed us to use them as premiums during our fund drives. There have been lots of films and books about Pete but the definitive Pete Seeger is to be heard on these recordings. As a direct result of Pete’s generosity, an awful lot of money has come in to keep the station going.
When he and his troupe came to Great Barrington to play at the Mahaiwe, they all stayed at our house. We stayed up much of the night talking and the first thing the next morning, we started all over again and talked some more. I was quite concerned because I had read an article in a local magazine that quoted Pete as saying that no one really needed to live in a house with more than two rooms. While our house is hardly close to the biggest in the Berkshires, I was scared that Pete would be put off by its size.
Now Toshi Seeger is one of the best people I have ever met. When I brought them up to their rooms, now dubbed the “Pete Seeger Suite,” Toshi looked at Pete and said, “Peter, this is the house I always wanted so that I could invite my relatives to visit.” I loved her even more for that.
Of course, everyone has a Pete story. I can’t go anywhere without someone telling me how the man has impacted their lives.
Before he passed away, the legendary Harold Leventhal, Pete’s manager, told me that he rented Carnegie Hall for that first incredible Weaver’s reunion concert because Town Hall wouldn’t rent to him. There are fewer than 3,000 seats at Carnegie Hall but about 100,000 people swear that they were at that concert.
Tomorrow at Madison Square Garden, more than 20,000 people will gather to honor Pete, a man who eschews being honored. The tickets were sold out in just a few days. He’s only allowing the honor because the money is being raised for the Clearwater organization, that group that has done more than anyone else to clean up the Hudson River.
I’ll be there with all my friends who used to go to Carnegie Hall every time Pete played there. On the same stage will be Bruce Springsteen and just about every name in folk music. There won’t be a dry eye in the house.
Originally Published in the Berkshire Eagle, 5/2/09