Pete Seeger: Iconic, 94, & Still Strong
Pete Seeger is about as iconic a personality as you can find on the streets around Beacon and Cold Spring. An award-winning musician, folklorist, political activist, and advocate for the Hudson River, he’s been on the national and worldwide cultural radar for all of this century and most of the last one.
And, he was recently in the news when his wife of nearly 70 years passed away.
I first met Pete about a year ago on Main Street in Cold Spring, when he stopped to ask me where he might be able to buy safety pins in the village. Last week I met him for the second time for a 90-minute interview at the PCN&R office. He was the same tall, lanky man wearing jeans and a hat, with a distinctive speaking voice that is both gentle and strong.
The person I met was a man full of stories, as many nonagenarians are, and understandably sad at times, given his recent loss.
“The ramblin’ man” is a staple of American folk songs, and Pete, in conversation, is very prone to rambling, but delightfully so. He warned me at the beginning of our conversation that I might need to rein him in from time to time. He was right.
What sets Pete apart from most of us is that so many other accomplished people and events loom large in his storytelling. Woody Guthrie, perhaps his best-known collaborator and friend, once said Pete was the “youngest man” he ever knew—“He don’t smoke, he don’t drink, and he don’t chase girls”—but became his great friend and, in many ways, a mentor.
Today that young man is 94, and has been present on this earth for most of the landmark events of the 20th and 21st centuries—the wars, the revolutions, the assassinations, the armistices, the re-shaping of the world map, civil rights and workers movements, and, of course, the music. He took a strong stand on most of the key issues of our times: antiwar, pro-organized labor, anticapitalist, pro-tolerance and understanding, and, of course, pro-environmentalism.
Whatever you may think about Pete’s “causes,” or his politics, he is, first and foremost, a musician; he uses his music as a way of engaging and educating people about the issues that matter to him.
When Pete sings, his whole body is engaged, he holds his head high, and the songs pour out of him with an inspired force. Even in conversation he periodically lapses into song, and occasionally taps out a staccato beat with his long fingers, or taps his toes, to underscore a point he’s making.
Years ago, Pete recalled, he was learning to sail on the Hudson and was dragging his hand in the water, “which was full of toilet waste.” He began to wonder what could be done about it. At that point the Clearwater concept sprang to life.
Pete credits Arnold Victor (Vic) Schwarz of Cold Spring, among others, with the founding of the organization, and recalled a concert at Sandy Saunders’ farm, in Garrison, where some of the first formal fundraising took place. Saunders’ late mother, Risi, “was very proud that Clearwater started in her living room,” Pete said.
Pete said Schwarz told him about the old sailing sloops that used to ply the Hudson, and shared seeing an early- 20th-century book, written in Beacon, entitled Sloops of the Hudson River. They decided to build a replica of one of these sloops, and that became the Clearwater, launched in 1969.
Over the past 45 years, the Clearwater organization has grown into a nationwide force for conserving and restoring the historic Hudson River. The sloop itself functions as a floating school for young and older environmentalists alike. The Clarkson-sponsored River University that is held at Beacon Institute every summer spends three solid days on the sloop, and school children from all over take part in learning opportunities on and around the sloop.
In the creation of its recently launched audio tour program, Boscobel House and Gardens included direct commentary from Pete about the importance of the river, and of keeping it clean.
Asked if he was proud of the work Clearwater has done, Pete, admitted, “I confess I am.”
When Pete shares his memories, there’s a crystalline quality to his stories—the names, the quotations, even the dates of many events are recounted as though they happened last week, and he pulls you in to his unparalleled life.
Pete is a New Yorker by birth, but describes himself as an Easterner—educated largely in Connecticut—and the descendant, mostly, of various European forebears, whose histories he knows in detail.
His parents were both musicians and there were instruments all over the house, which Pete picked up and tried at an early age. His first instrument was the ukulele. He recalled singing and playing at about age 8, “Silly songs [like] ‘He’s Just a Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia…’” Pete was proud that he got the other kids singing with him, and to this day, singing along with Pete is an essential part of the Seeger experience.
When he was a young man, Pete and his father went to a mountain music festival in North Carolina and he became fascinated by the five-string banjo. It’s a rhythmic instrument, he said, with African roots, capable of producing both tune and percussion, and he clearly loves it. He said he was—ironically—grateful to American employers for bringing over so many workers from around the world—starting with the slave trade—to come and provide cheap labor. Despite their hard circumstances, it was those workers, Pete said, who made invaluable contributions to the American music scene.
Pete has often been accused of being a wild-eyed radical, a troublemaker, or a hippie. “My father was a Lefty,” he said, matter-of-factly, adding, “But he let me find my own way.” For Pete that meant, among other things, supporting the union movement, advocating for civil rights for African-Americans, and closely following the communist revolution in Russia, which became a disappointment for him once Stalin started murdering his enemies in the late 1930s.
In 1957 he was cited for Contempt of Congress during the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, after he pleaded his First Amendment right to freedom of association. That led to a court conviction that would have meant serving a ten-year prison sentence, but it was overturned on appeal. I asked him if there was any up-side to this series of events. “Yes,” he replied. “It gave me a lot of publicity to say some things I believed in.”
Woody Guthrie is one of Seeger’s most famous collaborators, and his name came up more than once in our conversation. When I asked Pete about their friendship and musical collaboration, he responded simply: “He was my education.” With his Northeastern and New England roots, Pete said, “I was so ignorant about the West,” wondering, “What does anybody want to go west for?” Woody changed all that for Pete. “He liked me to accompany him,” Pete said, and they set off playing for union organizing meetings and other events as The Almanac Singers—a group that eventually morphed into the Weavers, which enjoyed some significant national success in the early 1950s.
Keeping time and humming, Pete launched into a rendition of Guthrie’s song, “Union Maid,” with the chorus, “Oh you can’t scare me, I’m stickin’ to the union…”
Because of his strong and radical political commitment, Pete was present for some of the most raucous events of the 20th century. He recalled the so-called Robeson Riots in Peekskill (just over the Putnam County line) in the summer of 1949, which was really two events, one on August 27 and one on September 4. In both cases Ku Klux Klan members, law enforcement, and others turned out in force to protest a performance by the legendary but controversial black athlete, singer and actor, Paul Robeson, who was a communist. The first night, “a thousand wooden chairs and a little wooden stage,” as well as the sound system were destroyed by an angry white mob.
Pete recalled going back the next week with his entire family and having rocks thrown through every window of their car, which contained his wife, their two children, two friends, and his father-in-law, while a police officer watched. When Pete stopped the car and asked if the policeman was going to do anything about all of the stone-throwers lined up along the road, the officer just told them to keep moving.
Later signs appeared that read “Wake up America: Peekskill Did.” These reminded him of stories he had heard about the Kristallnacht terror that took place in Hitler’s Germany. Using a medical metaphor, Pete said that in the case of the Robeson riots, “Peekskill had a case of fascism, but America didn’t get it.”
Seeger’s late wife, Toshi Ohta Seeger, was another American original. With a Japanese father and a Virginian mother, she had a multicultural upbringing, and Pete knows her story as well as he knows his own.
Together, and from the ground up, they built their own home on some steep acreage in Beacon “that nobody wanted,” and they raised their three kids in the Hudson Valley.
In the tributes that have been pouring out since her death, Toshi has been described as Pete’s “rock,” and the organizer in the family. It was Toshi who helped to make the annual Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival music festivals so successful. Both she and Pete were hands-on participants in their events, not just organizing and setting up, but also sticking around to clean up afterwards.
“She could do all sorts of things,” Pete said of Toshi. “I pass her bed every day…she had a slow decline. She fell and broke her hip, broke her knee… She spent more and more time in bed… And she couldn’t sit up. Finally she was being fed intravenously [and one day] Toshi says, ‘It’s time to go.’ And her pulse stopped and I kissed her goodbye, and her body was cold….but, she really was an astonishing person.” His eyes blinked and he paused a while before speaking again.
Toshi had several favorite songs, he said, among them “One Grain of Sand” which he wrote for their youngest daughter. As for his favorite song, he replied, “There are some I can sing more than others, such as ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’.”
As our conversation wore down, Pete returned to a theme he had touched on at the beginning, Pete Seeger as a sower of seeds, through music: “I decided that the most important parable that Jesus got out was, ‘The Sower of Seeds,’ and I look upon myself as a sower of seeds. Increasingly, as my own voice gets worse, I get audiences singing with me now, and I’m quite proud of it.”
The Parable of the Sower
And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”