Corner

 

Pete Seeger an American Folk Icon

As my car approached the long dirt road which leads to the Seeger home in Beacon, New York, I focused on the smell of breaded tilapia, rice pilaf, mixed vegetables, bread, zucchini and banana bread that was packed next to me in the shopping bag and hoped that Pete and his wife Toshi would find my choices for lunch palatable.

Remembering my visit two years before, I was anticipating a day of great conversation and hospitality and expecting a generous and captivating interview with Pete. I looked forward to hearing him weave memories about family, his social activism, the country’s struggles past and present, his personal challenges, his music and his hope for the future. Pete loves to give detailed and thought provoking answers to questions. I understand why he has earned the reputation as America’s greatest folksinger/storyteller.

I parked the car and walked towards the rustic, rough-hewed home built by Pete in 1949.
The view of the Hudson River was breathtaking. The house is still heated by one wood burning stove in the master bedroom and a fireplace in the living room, with wood split by Pete three times a week.

Toshi and Pete greeted me warmly at the door. The two cats and daughter, Tinya’s dog welcomed me with purrs and kisses. We sat in the living room area and within a few minutes we began to chat.

Pete was turning 90 on May 3rd and there would be a celebration at Madison Square Garden featuring Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Roger McGuinn and scores of others. The phone began to ring with inquiries from friends and family. It was 10am. At 10:45am, a call came in that the concert was sold out.

Pete announced that he would be picked up at three o’clock to be taken to a rehearsal with the third graders at the elementary schools in Beacon. He held my tape recorder close to his mouth and began, “This is Pete Seeger. It is March 2009.” He told wonderful stories for hours and hours and even though at times his voice would weaken, he continued through lunch, tea and dessert. We went into a storage closet where he climbed a ladder and looked through books, CDs, letters and photos, handing them to me to look at. His enthusiasm never waned. He would speak, ruminate and begin to sing.

It was hard to imagine that this gentle, poetic, kind and generous man had weathered so many years of personal struggle as gracefully as he had. He is hopeful for the future and continues to believe that music can change the world. He is the Pied Piper, but instead of leading the children away from the village, Pete is leading them to the village to become community-minded because, at 90, it is the most important work of his life.

Pete expressed his delight hearing that this interview will reach families with young children. He is happy that they will be introduced to traditional songs and the process of folk singing, which encourages singers to adapt the songs to become relevant to the times. He noted how Woody Guthrie’s tune, “This Land is Your Land,” written in 1944, is still relevant today, which is why he and Bruce Springsteen sang it together at the Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial on January 18th 2009. The song has been inspiring artists to use its message for decades. It was brought back to life in the 1960s during the folk movement and then again when Bruce Springsteen sang it in support of Barack Obama, adding “Yes We Can” to its lyrics. At Pete’s request, the song was restored to its original lyrics for the Inaugural performance.

Pete discusses performing at Obama Inaugural Concert

 

He hopes families will be inspired to learn about how they can become more involved locally, believing that taking care of your own community is a way to create a better world for our children. It is this belief that gives him hope for the future.

At 90, Pete is still very active in his community of Beacon, New York. On this afternoon he will participate in a rehearsal for a local production called “The Calico Ball,” with 200 third graders from the local elementary schools.

Pete talked about his experiences, singing to family audiences and encouraging their participation in sing-a-longs. His eyes lit up as he spoke and it was clear to me that his passion for this continues.

Pete talks about and sings May There Always be Sunshine


Pete likes to tell a parable about “the teaspoon brigades.” Imagine a big seesaw with one end on the ground because it has a basket full of rocks on it. The other end of the seesaw is in the air because its basket is a quarter full of sand. Some of us have teaspoons and are trying to fill it up. Most people say that the sand is leaking out of the basket as quickly as you are putting it in. But there are more people with teaspoons everyday. He believes that one of these days, the basket of sand is going to be full and then the seesaw will go in the right direction.

He asked me if I’d heard of the book, Blessed Unrest, written by Paul Hawken, and told the story of Martha Graham giving advice to the young Agnes DeMille in 1926. He quoted her: “All us artists are filled with a blessed unrest, trying to reach the infinite and never of course making it but never giving up trying.” He emphasized, “It’s about all of the little things going on!”

Pete talks about all the little things people do to make a better world

 

He said that projects like this and others, like the “Shorewalkers Club” in New York City, were building a community. Their slogan is “Collecting is Good, Shorewalking is Better” and their membership has grown to 2,000 members.

He described, “There are walks all around the city led by young people and old people in all of the boroughs. For example, after Thanksgiving there is the ‘Walk Off the Turkey’ from the Battery Tunnel to the George Washington Bridge.” He talked about the “Great Saunter,” a 32 mile trek which he has walked five times. It goes around the rim of Manhattan Island, starting early in the morning at the South Street Seaport and ending there in the evening for a celebration. “I can’t do it this year because I have to go to this birthday party.”

 

He was referring to his 90th birthday party at Madison Square Garden, on May 3rd, where more than 18,000 people are celebrating his life and work. He complained, “I don’t really approve of great big things. It’s not really the way I like to do music, with a few hundred singing out where everyone can hear each other. Otherwise it is too big, it gets a little muddy.”

 

Toshi took me to the window and pointed to an area down the hill where Bruce Springsteen picked Pete up in his helicopter this past January, to go to the Presidential inaugural concert.

Pete talked about the 1969 peace rally at the Washington Monument, where 500,000 people gathered to protest the Vietnam War. He remembered how difficult it was to have everybody sing together. He was very moved though, by the power of so many singing “Give Peace a Chance.”

 

Pete tells about singing Give Peace a Chance with 500,000 people

Pete stated, “The only reason I agreed to this huge birthday party was to show the powers that be that Clearwater is an active organization and to ask its members to host little fundraisers in their homes. He talked about the need to refurbish the sloop as well as to give inner city kids the opportunity to spend a day on it.

Pete talks about the Clearwater

I asked Pete to talk about his childrens books, which he did with joy. He climbed a ladder in his storage closet and took down his books Abiyoyo, Abiyoyo Returns and One Grain of Sand. He said that as a small child, his father used to come home from work and sit at the edge of his bed, making up fantastical stories that would have Pete laughing uproariously. “Of course my father was supposed to be putting me to sleep, but eventually it would.”

When he decided to write Pete Seeger’s Storytelling Book, he hoped the cover would be “a darkened room, where you could hardly make out a small child sitting up in bed and an adult sitting on the edge of the bed. In the front you could see the lights of the city on the other side and not lights of the suburbs, but lights of the city and I wanted to call it, Telling Stories in the Dark and they said, people will think it’s ghost stories. So I said let’s subtitle it, Not Ghost Stories. The sales department said absolutely not.” He hopes that someday a new cover will be created, which will have his drawing, and he showed it to me. It is a wonderful drawing.

Pete told me that after serving in World War II, he resumed his career as a performer and song collector, and helped to found the still-existing Sing Out! magazine. He showed me the songbook, Rise up Singing, and asked me to read the introduction, stating that he thought it was the best introduction he had ever written. “when strangers meet and find they like the same song, then there is one more connection made for the future world network. And when eventually we have a world of peace and justice, the songs and those who sing them will be some of the millions of reasons why. Is such a world an impossibility? … Getting that world of peace and justice will involve millions of smiles as we recognize and treasure our diversity, our different paths, our different values. And when one person taps out a beat while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know: there’s hope for the world … Our greatest songs are yet unsung.”

While Toshi and Tinya were on the phone discussing the plans for the 90th birthday celebration, Pete seemed more interested in showing me a chalil, an Israeli flute that he made from bamboo. He sat back in his chair and taught me how to make a chalil. He had several displayed on his music shelf and chose one. He thought the holes were too far apart and explained exactly how it should be made. Ilke, the Israeli musician who taught Pete, said that the best bamboo is from the Dead Sea. He began slowly but was soon playing a beautiful melody. He hopes to someday make a video that will teach children how to make and play a chalil.

Click above to hear Pete playing the chalil

He then excused himself in order not to be late for the rehearsal with the third graders. At 90, his passion and commitment are undiminished.

Click here for more on Pete Seeger's life and his 90th birthday party.

 

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