Pete was my musical template and career exemplar, as he was to many. He was our our wood chopping, maple syrup making, protest singing, banjo playing, ship building, song writing, book authoring, album making, concert performing, boat sailing and community involvement friend.
He was America's connection to its own musical legacy. He traveled with Woody Guthrie, archived America's music with John Lomax, helped introduce Dylan and Joan Baez to the world and introduced Martin Luther King to a reworded old song called "We Shall Overcome." He sang in Madison Square Garden, concert halls around the world and grammar schools. He would think of nothing, even at 94 years old, to grab his banjo and stand on a cold street corner with protesters for any cause he agreed with.
Pete was banned from American television because of his stand on free speech and affiliations. So in the 1960s he and his wife Toshi took their meager savings ... even famous folkies don't make much ... and convinced a New Jersey PBS stations to let him try out a TV series called Rainbow Quest. Pete would sit around a picnic table, play a song with one of his friends like Doc Watson or Ralph Stanley, then chat a while. Then play another song. I added a live audience to his idea and it became WoodSongs.
He had some defined habits ... he preferred to respond to folks letters on small, reused pieces of paper or a post card. He would draw a little banjo next to his name, a tribute to his wife's Japanese heritage. He would also glue a small oak or maple leaf to his letters and cards, "my connection to the earth" he would claim.
Then of course there was that statement he scrolled on his famous banjo.
Pete had this habit of lifting his head upward when he sang. It's an iconic photo of him, chin raised high and urging the audience to sing. That habit put so much pressure on his vocal chords that, as he aged, his voice began to leave him and made it hard for him to sing at all.
I first encountered Pete at the old Grand Union grocery store in Beacon NY. I knew of this neighbor, we all though he was nuts. Anytime there was a thunderstorm this old guy who claimed to be a musician but played the banjo would show up at our school with an ax ... an AX .. and chop up the fallen limbs. After high school a friend invited me to travel to Laredo Texas and try being a DJ on KLAR AM. They gave me the 12-6am time slot, that's where they stick you when you really suck. One night it was time to play an oldies song so I by chance pulled "Turn, Turn, Turn" by The Byrds off the shelf. As it played I looked at the song information and noticed it was written by my crazy neighbor.
"Ohhhhh," says I. "That's who Pete Seeger is."
Right now there are many misguided efforts to "honor" him. Some want to change the name of the Hudson River to the Seeger River. Pete would rise from the grave and whack those folks over the head with his banjo on that one. Others want to rename a bridge in NYC after him. Same reaction, no doubt. Other are already laying claim to who will carry his torch or who his so called heir-apparent might be. He deserved to own his legacy without others handing it off or even suggesting someone comes close to his passion, music and work. No one does. So let's stop. He deserves better than those with no stage creating a stage by clamoring to rename the Hudson River or a NYC bridge in his "honor." It may be well intentioned but god-awful disgraceful at best.
I'm sure everyone misses Pete and express these ideas with good intentions. If you really want to honor Pete, go sing a free concert in a school. Pick up trash along your neighbors yard. Gather your friends for a front porch sing along. Organize a music festival in a pumpkin patch for a good cause. Volunteer at a homeless shelter and bring your banjo for an after supper sing.
My thought: I think his eyes would twinkle to have have a sloop with his name on it, the Pete sailing alongside the Woody on the Hudson River he loved. Or to rename the park in Beacon where the Beacon Sloop Club stands the Pete & Toshi Memorial Gardens.
One of his greatest regrets as he grew older was not spending enough time during his younger years with his wife. She gave up many of her own dreams and wants to support his. "I was just being a good wife," she would tell me. Not many of those around, I would respond. All of Pete's envelopes were return addressed to "Pete & Toshi Seeger" and he was always thrilled to tell her that some reviewer or artist was including her by name in something.
Gonna miss that fellow. A lot. I just got a note from him two days before he passed ... can you believe that? Pete was so proud he made it to 94, he missed his wife Toshi.
Folk on and on,