For Seeger, benefit tinged with emotion

In a few weeks, Pete Seeger will continue his tradition of helping his public radio station, WAMC. This incredibly generous 95-year-old, best-of-the-best hero will be heading back to Peekskill, N.Y., on Sunday, Sept. 8th at 1 p.m. for a sold-out concert to benefit the station. Of course, Pete can sell out any venue, but this concert is special.

In 1949, Pete, his family and Paul Robeson headed for the fairgrounds just outside Peekskill to do a performance. In the car were Pete, his wife, Toshi and their young children, Woody Guthrie and Lee Hays. When they arrived, they were greeted by a gang of rowdy thugs armed with rocks and far worse. They felt so threatened that the concert had to be postponed. They were called communists. There were anti-Semitic slurs. They were the recipients of vile epithets. Worse than all that, the police just looked on and, Pete says, encouraged the mob. Pete and Robeson did perform a short while later but until now, Pete has never returned to nearby Peekskill to play. This is a man who holds his emotions in check but to put it mildly, Pete is emotional about this concert.

This performance has an even greater meaning for all of us who love Pete. His life’s companion, Toshi, who Pete recently described as “the smart one in the family,” has passed on. I am told by a good friend of the Seegers that shortly before her death, Toshi was so excited about this concert that she started to suggest some meaningful songs that Pete could include. Toshi was a true partner to Pete. When the government thugs came after him and arrested him for defying HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee (even the name makes me shudder), she was there alongside him and quipped that he should have stayed in jail longer than the few hours he was kept in a cell. Now Pete’s daughter, Tinya, has been doing much of what her mom did, helping Pete to keep up his work.

Pete has powerful feelings about right and wrong and this country has not had a more important environmental steward. He was an icon of the civil rights movement, placing himself in one dangerous situation after another in order to protest racist brutality. He is both generous and humble.

Probably the best night of my life was the night Pete brought his whole crew to our house after playing at the Mahaiwe and stayed there while the younger members went to play Club Helsinki which was then in Great Barrington. I was to introduce my hero at the sold-out show and just before I got up to do that, I was told by his grandson, Tao, that Pete wanted me to “keep it short.”

I’ll be doing it again in Peekskill and, ever mindful of my instructions, I am collecting my words. Surely we will dedicate this concert to Toshi. Surely we will mention what the “Return to Peekskill” means. Surely we will thank Pete for all he has done for WAMC. Of course, words are inadequate to express what Pete has meant to me and to so many of you who have flooded me with your own remembrances of him. Everyone has a Pete story.

Pete knows that we all make mistakes. When actor/folk singer Burl Ives died, Pete was called by public radio and asked to speak about the man who “named” him before the HUAC witch hunters. The words that caused my tears that day were something like, “He forgave me my mistakes and I forgave him his.” Pete said that when he saw Ives a few years back, they embraced.

Final words: there is no one better than Pete.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 8/17/13

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