The first time I saw Pete Seeger I was a kid in the 1950s being dragged along by my parents to lefty picnics and social events. I wasn’t particularly interested in folk music, but there was something captivating about this tall, somewhat awkward man with the big Adam’s apple and rolled-up work shirtsleeves exhorting the audience to sing along while whamming away on an oddly long-necked banjo.
The last time I saw Pete Seeger he was 90 years old and chopping wood. Ben Koenig, owner of The Country Bookshop in Plainfield, and I had driven to Seeger’s self-built log house in New York’s Hudson Valley
to deliver the huge card signed by many of the 300-plus folks who’d celebrated Pete’s birthday a few weeks before at the Old Labor Hall in Barre. The card featured a painting of Pete by Ed Epstein, of Montpelier, an old Seeger friend and illustrator of Pete’s groundbreaking 1948 mimeographed manual, “How to Play the 5-String Banjo.”
In the house, piles of cards, letters and packages testified that we were hardly the only ones grateful to Pete for his many years of music and inspiration.
Pete Seeger died Monday. You’ve probably read, heard or seen at least one of the many tributes to this monumental man (he’d hate that phrase, I’m sure) praising Pete not only for his music but for his courage, integrity and unshakable dedication to making a better world for all. I’ll go so far as to say that many of the social and environmental gains of the past century owe a great debt to Pete Seeger.
Certainly, without Pete, the 20th century’s labor, peace, civil rights and environmental movements would not have sung as loudly, diversely or with as much conviction and power. For several years, there’s even been a movement to award Pete the Nobel Peace Prize.
Now an icon, Pete certainly knew adversity. As an Almanac Singer with Woody Guthrie and others in the 1940s he held hootenannies to raise rent money. In the 1950s he saw his next group, the Weavers, and his career derailed by McCarthyism, and he was cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the 1960s he was blacklisted from national television and censored when the Smothers Brothers defied the blacklist and presented him on their network show.
But Pete never quit. He just threw his head back, sang louder, and chopped more wood. Like Nelson Mandela, Pete was a reconciler — more interested in bringing people together and pursuing a peaceful future than in railing and recriminating against an unjust past. He was, in his own phrase, a musical “Johnny Appleseed Jr.,” using folk music instead of apples to “plant the seeds of a better tomorrow in the homes across our land.”
Some of those seeds became anthems: “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and, perhaps most importantly, “We Shall Overcome.”
Pete was also an accomplished, creative and versatile musician, something that tends to get overshadowed by his social activism and extraordinary ability as a song-leader. He was 16 and playing tenor banjo in his high school jazz band when a trip with his ethnomusicologist father exposed him to vernacular Southern music and the five-string banjo. He was quickly converted to the older instrument and began learning traditional techniques — frailing (or clawhammer), double thumbing, up-picking — from the old-timers, both on record and in person. He was also among the first Northerners to explore the new three-finger bluegrass style of Earl Scruggs. And he took the banjo in even newer directions. Flamenco, jazz tunes and pop standards emanated from Pete’s banjo alongside modal mountain tunes and ancient Child ballads.
Nor were Pete’s instrumental talents confined to the banjo. He helped popularize the 12-string guitar. He also played the mandolin, the recorder and the Israeli chalil.
But it is perhaps as an accompanist that Pete displayed his greatest instrumental skill. Even his simplest arrangements are carefully honed. His guitar and banjo settings employ counter-melodies, rhythmic accents, chord voicings and other techniques that enhance the songs without ever calling attention to themselves. Even his whamming on the banjo provides the perfect means of supporting and stimulating the singing of his audiences.
In a music industry infamous for its financial mistreatment of musicians and songwriters, Pete was a model of integrity, seeing that royalties from “Wimoweh” went to the estate of the original writer’s family and that a fund was established for the royalties from “We Shall Overcome” to support grass-roots efforts within African-American communities to use art and activism against injustice.
And now he’s gone, less than a year after the death of his wife of 70 years, Toshi. Like Pete, Toshi was a power (though a behind-the-scenes one) in the folk music community that they did so much to build. They were inseparable.
When Ben and I visited in 2009, Toshi interrupted our talking (mostly by Pete) and music-making to ask Pete to fetch something. At 90, he jumped up like a well-trained retriever. And when Ben and I summoned our courage and played for Pete a medley of his songs that we had performed at the Barre concert, he excitedly summoned Toshi to listen.
Eventually, our visit was over. We packed up our instruments and headed down the road, and Pete returned to chopping wood.
Chop on, Pete. Well may the world go, as you wrote and sang, when you are far away.
Mark Greenberg is a musician, teacher and producer. He lives in Montpelier.MORE IN Commentary
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