Thursday, July 11, 2013

Toshi & Pete

It took me a day to reflect before I could post this. 

Yesterday TOSHI SEEGER, wife and companion of Pete Seeger, passed away.

She was at his side through every song, every trial, every book, every project ... every log he chopped and every child he fathered ... she was there. She was an eye witness to American music history. She knew Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson and Leadbelly. She marched with Martin Luther King. She heard Bob Dylan perform for the first time at the Newport Folk Festival and she was there when he turned electric. She sat in her kitchen cutting vegetables while Pete and some friends mused about how neat it would be to build a big wooden sloop that would sail the Hudson and bring people to its shore and help clean the river up. And while others rolled their eyes and scoffed, Toshi helped Pete organize the benefits it would take to raise the money and actually build the Clearwater.

And she was there when it sailed for the first time.

Toshi was an artist at heart but her life with Pete turned her into a manager, organizer, visionary, motivator and champion. And she worked hard at it. She navigated the oddities of Pete's thought process and the personalities of his friends. Artists are indeed an odd lot at times.  You have to be gentle and tough at the same time. Joan Baez said it best, to be married to Pete Seeger a woman would have to be a saint ... and Toshi ain't no saint :)

Even married to arguably the biggest folk icon on the planet, Toshi was a humble worker. Instead of taking her position of importance as the queen of Pete's world, Toshi would most likely be seen under a tent in the heat of summer cooking strawberry shortcake in a wood oven and serving it to folks during the Clearwater Sloop Festival.

And there's more ... Back in the 1960's Pete had this idea that going on TV would be a good thing. After all, he was blacklisted by virtually every network. So, might as well have your own TV show. He called up a small public television station in New Jersey, got himself a couple chairs and a picnic table and started his own little series called "Rainbow Quest." He would sing a song then invite his friends like Doc Watson, Jean Ritchie and others to sit around the table, chat a bit and share some songs. (Later on, I would steal the idea with Pete's blessing, add an audience of 500 people every week and called the thing "WoodSongs") Surely, Pete had some far flung ideas before, but this one was different. It took virtually all their savings to pull off, they never found a sponsor and the show folded after a short time.

Through it all, Toshi supported, managed, promoted, stood by and plunged forward on behalf of her husband. Today, Rainbow Quest is a genuine archive of America's finest folk artists of that era.

But don't get the wrong idea, Toshi had herself a spine of steel. I remember sitting in their home one evening in Beacon, their home along the beloved Hudson River. In the kitchen was a big bowl full of salad, in the air cosmic conversation and a couple of banjos being passed around. As we were leaving later that evening Pete got up and started washing the dishes. Toshi looked at him, sighed and said, "You can stop that now, they're leaving."

She was always blunt, to the point. Never shy about cutting trough Pete's veneer but loyal to the bone none-the-less. I liked her. I admired her. I wished I had someone just like that supporting me. 

When I wrote my first book, it was Toshi and Pete that did most of the content editing and fact checking.  When she read something she didn't like, I surely did hear about it. I saved the manuscript with all their scribbles on it and followed all their advice. I could see then what a powerful force Pete had behind him. I could tell she was part of the history he made, a big part.

And so I wrote a song about her in the Woody Guthrie opera.

Toshi had been sick the past few years, Pete's health surpassing hers as time rolled on. Last time I talked with Pete, we were on the phone for nearly two hours and the American Masters PBS special was brought up. I told Pete one of the things I liked abut it was the attention it gave to Toshi and how nice it was to see him doting on her. Pete called out to Toshi and said, "Michael liked the American Masters film because of how nice it reflected on you!" Toshi grabbed the phone from Pete and said, "I was just being a good wife ..." and then handed the phone back to him.

Classic Toshi.

To place it in a single sentence, there would be no Pete Seeger had there not been a Toshi. I wonder what it is like for Pete to lose this friend of so many years. I wonder what it is like to watch your soul mate wither with age and leave. I wonder what it's like the next morning to wake and realize she is gone, the space in the bed next to you is empty.  The dress she wore, the little items she loved on the book shelf and the children who reflect her life in their eyes are without her spirit and touch. I'm sure, like any couple married for so long, they wondered about this moment. They talked about it, thought about it. Dreaded it. Wondering who would leave first and what it would be like.

And the clock ticked, and the days rolled by and the earth spinned 'round and the moment came. And now it's done.

"To everything, Turn, Turn Turn ... there is a season, Turn Turn Turn ..."

And such is time. Such is life.