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An Iconoclastic Icon

Some Personal Recollections of Pete Seeger

by DAVID ROVICS

On Monday night I looked at my phone, before going to bed, and checked the BBC headlines, as I often do. That’s when I learned that the great Pete Seeger had died at the age of 94.

I slept anyway, but not very well, with my thoughts racing all night. I have jet lag, too. I only just got back last night from 2-1/2 weeks of, well, hanging out with friends of Pete Seeger’s for the most part, in Ireland and in New York City. (You can read about that trip across the Atlantic on my blog, too, if you like.)

Pete was one of the folks on the ground floor of a thing called the People’s Music Network, that a wonderful songwriter and friend of Pete’s named Charlie King started up along with other folks back in the 1970’s, if I have the timeline right. Just last weekend I was at the winter gathering of PMN. It moves around from city to city, usually somewhere in the northeastern US, and this time it was in Queens.

At the gathering I was giving workshops and doing what they call mentoring sessions, trying to help other musicians out with improving their craft, and giving advice on how to attempt to make a living at this. My biggest piece of advice on that last point is always that all that really matters is whether you have fans who like your music enough to come to your shows, and organize your shows. The old system of getting signed to a record label and all that never worked well for most people, and more or less stopped working entirely around the time the airwaves in the US were deregulated in 1981 or thereabouts. So I tell them, you gotta figure out how to do it yourself, and network directly with your fans, and give away your music online so you might get those fans in the first place. I tell them that what established artists or other luminaries think of their music doesn’t matter – they’re not the ones who are going to be paying to come hear you play.

But then, Pete Seeger died. And though I still believe my own advice, and though Pete may not have had much impact on whether I get gigs or have fans who come to them or any of that, certainly Pete, the icon, and Pete, the man, had an impact on my life that would be hard to overstate. And there are so many people from so many generations and so many parts of the world who are, right now, undoubtedly saying the same thing.

If Pete ever had an obsession with becoming a famous musician, it seems he got that out of his system more than half a century ago, when he became famous, as a member of the Weavers. Soon after the Weavers had a string of hits, they were put on McCarthy’s blacklist, and Pete took to the road, playing college campuses and other places where he could do shows while still on the blacklist, which is where my mother first heard him play, when she was a student at Oberlin College.

Ever since those days, it seems to me Pete was spreading a sort of gospel in his work, which I’d summarize like this:

Music is powerful. Every real social movement has music at its core, and the civil rights movement is a great example of that. And Woody Guthrie was a fantastic songwriter. Simplicity is good. Good to be humble, to live simply, for your own mental and physical health, and for the health of the planet. Simple messages work better, too. Just because you can play your instrument really well doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to show off. Nonviolent civil disobedience is good. Other tactics are understandable but they don’t work as well. Love your neighbor. Surrounding hate with love works better than killing fascists. Think globally, act locally. Organize within your local community, and at all times, stay humble.

As much as he was a musician producing great music and writing great songs, he was an activist, always promoting the music of Woody Guthrie, and always promoting these ideas.

The first time I met Pete was at my first PMN gathering. I think it was 1990. He seemed pretty old to me then, though I guess he would have been barely 70, which doesn’t usually seem very old to me these days. Hanging around some of these amazing songwriters I met there then – Pete, Charlie KingPat HumphriesFred Small and others – I realized then that I wanted to be like that, and that the way to get there was to immerse myself in the musical traditions from which all these people came. I also realized that there is something profoundly humbling about this very concept – the realization that you’re nothing unless you’re standing on the shoulders of those who came before you, consciously. You’re not original – you’re just playing the same chord progressions that were invented in Africa centuries ago. And you have very little right taking credit for a song you wrote that uses one of those chord progressions, either, so just get over the whole concept of originality, I learned through the examples of these people, especially Pete.

And in case that point wasn’t made entirely clear in words and workshops, at the end of my first PMN gathering, after most of the attendees had left, there was Pete, sweeping the floor. Embarrassed not to be doing something useful, I picked up a broom and joined him in that endeavor.

After years of living on the west coast, trying to become a decent folksinger, woodshedding for hours every day learning songs from throughout the ages like I knew I was supposed to if I wanted to be any good, very consciously following Pete’s example, I started trying my hand at songwriting again. At the Clearwater festival on the Hudson River, which Pete was involved with starting up a long time ago, I first got turned on to the music of Phil Ochs. Living on the west coast I discovered Jim Page. Those two songwriters had an immense impact on me, and I had written a song that was very much influenced by their stuff, though not as good.

I was back east again around 1993 and went back to a PMN gathering in upstate New York. There was a songswap, one of many, and Pete was one of the folks swapping songs, just another guy with a banjo. Like everyone else, I pretended not to care that he was in on that songswap – didn’t want to annoy the guy by being starstruck. I sang the very long song I had recently written, a sort of global social movement historical survey that I was calling “Ballad of the Proletariat.”

Very conscious not to say anything critical in a public space, Pete waited until I was standing alone on the grass somewhere and he came up to me.

“You know,” he said, “’proletariat’ is a long, Latin word. It might as well be in Swahili or Chinese.”

I changed the title. Eventually, at Anne Feeney’s suggestion, I edited out some of the verses so the song came in at under five minutes, rather than the original eight. (Still very long, though, but somewhat more managably so.)

A couple years later I was back living on the east coast, in Connecticut. It was either in Pete’s regular column in Sing Out! magazine, or else in the info that came along with announcements about upcoming PMN gatherings that he put it out there that he was always looking for good new songs. I’m not sure I would have bothered him otherwise, but since it said he was looking for new songs, and he published his PO Box right there in the magazine, I ventured to send him a lyric I had just written after the Oklahoma City bombing, to the tune of Dylan’s song, “Who Killed Davey Moore?” I guess he liked the lyric OK, but I wonder if it was the local (Connecticut) address that interested him more than anything.

I lived with my girlfriend at the time in Southbury, but I probably used my mother’s return address on the lyric I sent him, and I guess I must have given him her phone number. One day I was visiting my mother, once again attempting to follow her directive to clean up and organize the vast array of stuff I was perpetually storing in her attic, when the phone rang. My mother talked for a minute with whoever called, and of course it was her house, so I figured the call was for her.

Then she called me down from the attic and handed me the phone, whispering with excitement, “It’s Pete Seeger.”

“Hello, David? I got this song lyric from you about Oklahoma City. Have you ever heard of the Clearwater Festival?”

He proceeded to invite me to come play at the festival, and he told me about other festivals that happened on the Hudson River that I should sing at. He was clearly in local organizer mode. At the time, the usually secretive, pacifist, communitarian religious sect known as the Bruderhof were experimenting with opening up to the world and playing a clear role as part of the left, and Pete clearly thought that was great.

“Have you ever heard of the Bruderhof? No? They’re sort of Christian communists, and they have a community in Connecticut. They’re having a gathering which you might like to attend.”

Which I did, of course. I agonized over the invitation to Clearwater, because I had already bought a plane ticket to go to Ireland. I planned to busk my way around Ireland and England, though I ended up just getting really sick soon after I arrived, and not busking much at all. In any case, I didn’t go to the festival, but I did take Pete up on his invitation to visit during a meeting of the Beacon (New York) Sloop Club when I got back from Europe.

Pete of course met a lot of people, and by the time I got to the Sloop Club Pete didn’t remember who I was. I reminded him of the song I had sent him, and then he seemed to remember, or at least pretended to. It was funny to see him, and his wife Toshi, in that atmosphere, because I had the distinct impression that everybody else was trying to avoid both of them. My guess at the time was if they talked to either of them, they might be asked to do something. In any case, it was a great opportunity to hang out and talk for a good while. Pete had me sing a few songs for everybody. They put up with it politely.

A couple years later at a Grassroots Radio Conference in upstate New York, Pete, me and Granny D were on the bill, all performing (or speaking, in Granny D’s case) in a big tent outdoors. I was so excited to have a gig with Pete. When I met Pete there in the tent, he said, “so you’re David Rovics.” Again, we met for the first time.

I don’t know if that gig had anything to do with it, but it was maybe a year or two afterward that my sister left me a message telling me about something that had come in the mail to my PO Box, which she was checking for me when I was away from home, which at the time was Boston. Later I saw the piece of mail in question myself. It was a check for $100 with a brief note saying, “send me everything you got.” I thought about framing the check and putting it on the wall, but I needed the money, so I deposited it. Plus I just didn’t believe in the whole idea of impressing people with such things. I’ve told this story to few people. Not into name-dropping or that sort of thing. Too much Pete Seeger influence there. But it was one of the best days of my life, getting that phone call from my sister about that little piece of mail.

I sent him all the CDs I had recorded up til that point, as requested. Usually Pete’s main form of communication involved a particular postcard, of which he must have had a large collection. It was a picture of the Milky Way galaxy, with a little arrow pointing to one of the tiny spots of light on one of the arms, and the words, “you are here.” On the other side would be a few words, like “thanks for the CDs” or something, and his little signature drawing of a banjo, and his first name, Pete.  Later he started signing the postcards, Old Pete.

I figured if he wanted all those CDs back then, he might want future releases, so now and then if I recorded one I thought he’d like (like the ones that didn’t have too many electric guitars involved), I’d send him one. I’d occasionally get back a little note that I’d treasure to a fairly ridiculous degree, that would just say something like, “great CD.” When Pete used an adjective like “great,” it was something to especially treasure. He didn’t seem to be a huge fan of adjectives like that.

I guess he had someone helping him with his overwhelming amounts of mail, and I felt bad about ever bothering him, really, because I knew, having read his biography, that he spent four hours every day answering his mail. Whenever I’d send him a CD, after he told me send my CDs to him, before getting the postcard, I’d get a handwritten but photocopied letter explaining that he got too much mail and couldn’t listen to CDs, and then to lessen the impact of these words, he’d include bits of whatever song he was working at recently.

I took the hint anyway, and only sent him a CD every few years or so. About as often, I’d send him a song lyric if I thought I had written one he might particularly like. I did this when I wrote a song about the bombing of Hiroshima. He sent it back to me, with handwritten sheet music in the margins. Maybe I hadn’t told him that I already had music to it, I don’t remember. But he thought he’d write the melody for it anyway. If I had better business sense I would have probably thrown out my own music for the song and used his, thus being able to say that I co-wrote a song with Pete Seeger. But I didn’t, and I don’t know where that letter is. I’m shit at saving stuff like that, I’m too itinerant.

The last time I saw Pete in person was over ten years ago, behind the stage at the big protest on February 15th, 2003, in Manhattan. We each sang one song at the protest, on that bitterly cold day. Pete and Toshi were freezing, Pete looking very red from the cold, and there were no heaters in the tent. There was loads of press there, jockeying for position to try to interview Danny Glover, Susan Sarandon and Desmond Tutu. Pete and Toshi were huddling on folding chairs, ignored, patiently waiting for Pete’s turn to sing. He sang “Over the Rainbow,” which struck me as an odd choice. I kept them company, and we talked, I don’t remember about what.

By the time I got around to reconnecting with People’s Music Network gatherings, Pete didn’t seem to be attending them anymore. He was slowing down as he approached his nineties, as people generally do, though of course I’d hear reports about his movements, running into his grandson Tao regularly at SOA protests and elsewhere.

Hanging out with Tommy Sands a few days ago in Ireland, he recounted some wonderful stories about Pete as well as Tao, who in recent years was the one who went out in Pete’s stead to receive awards intended for his grandfather. Tommy said it had been Tao’s idea to throw a big 90th birthday bash for Pete at Madison Square Garden. One of the many musicians invited to sing at that was Tommy. He brought his family with him, and they had a great time, by all accounts. Years before, Tommy and Pete co-wrote a song. Can’t remember which one that was. While Tommy was there in New York singing for Pete’s 90th birthday, I was singing at a decidedly smaller event in Copenhagen, also celebrating Pete’s birthday, along with a veritable who’s who of 1960’s-era Danish songwriters, all of whom had been profoundly influenced by Pete.

I’m sure Pete felt a deep kinship with Tommy, given that they were in so many ways in the same line of work. Both folksingers keeping alive rich musical traditions, both songwriters, both deeply involved with various peace processes, both very much involved with their own local communities, which for Tommy meant Northern Ireland.

One of the pictures on the wall in Tommy’s studio is of him, Tao, Gerry Adams and David Irvine. Adams of course is a leader of Sinn Fein, previously a leader of the IRA. Irvine had been the leader of the UVF, the Ulster Volunteer Force. Both men with a long history of using guns to further their political agendas, who were both trying to turn over a new leaf, and find less violent means of working out their very significant differences.

As Tommy recounted the story to me, Irvine refused to shake Adams hand. Undeterred, in a reassuring voice, Adams said to Irvine, “alright, David.” Irvine said to Adams, “alright, Gerry.” And then Tao sang Pete’s beautiful original composition, “Where Have All The Flowers Gone.” Though Adams and Irvine didn’t shake each others hands, they both sang along to the song. Both men had good singing voices, Tommy reported.

Though Pete was once again absent from the PMN gathering last weekend, his spirit was everywhere, as usual. The “musicians in residence” for PMN in 2014 are a venerable duo of folksingers who together go by the name, Magpie. They recounted the story of what must have been one of the last recordings Pete made, when they visited him at his home in Beacon, not long after Toshi died. They wanted Pete to play a banjo part to a song they were putting on a new album they were working on, and he happily obliged, playing his part with consummate skill as usual. Though his singing voice had been shot for years in his advanced years, his ability to chop wood or to play stringed instruments had apparently not suffered.

They didn’t want to keep him, figuring maybe he needed some rest or something, but Pete kept them there for hours, regaling them with stories, as he was known to do at times. Four generations have grown up listening to the music of Pete Seeger, and engaging with the musical and political traditions he helped keep alive. I really can’t imagine what folk music, or the civil rights movement, or the antiwar movement, or the environmental movement, or the twentieth century, or I would have been like without him. But I’m sure that long after his passing from the Earth, my daughter’s will not be the last generation to grow up listening to the music and stories of Pete Seeger.

David Rovics is a singer/songwriter based in Portland, Oregon.