Pete Seeger: With
Banjo, Ax – and Cake
Beacon, a small town north of New York City, lies directly beside the Hudson. On the highway just outside you have to pay close attention, because the wooded, uphill road you're looking for is easy to miss. Snow or mud sometimes makes it impassable – then you have to park your vehicle and hike. Up on top lies the clearing that holds the Seeger place, a two-room log cabin and renovated shed, and for your efforts you're rewarded with a sweeping view of the wide Hudson – the river that, so badly polluted, inspired Pete in 1961 to write My Dirty Stream. He was forty-two years old at the time; over the course of the next fifty-two years he would continually sing out on behalf of his stream as its banjo-picking activist troubadour. Civil rights, worker rights, peace, nuclear disarmament, and the environment – for decades Pete tirelessly toured the land, the affable voice of a better America.
Over the course of the past three decades I often had the chance to visit Pete. If he were expecting me, he might stand at the edge of his property and lead the echoing Hudson Valley in a sing-along yodel of welcome. I nearly always found him with something in his expressive hands – an ax, his banjo, or a couple pieces of cake. Together with his wife Toshi and friends, Pete built the rustic, two-room log cabin back in 1949. Originally it had neither electricity nor water. The place was heated by a wood-burning stove, and Pete chopped lumber nearly every day – the final time, his grandson Kitama Cahill Jackson tells us, only ten days before he passed away on 28 January 2014. Chopping wood, Pete said, was his source of fitness – and it couldn't be overlooked: Pete's profile was as lean as his long-necked banjo's.
Toshi, born in Munich, her father Japanese and her mother an American, had passed away only six months earlier at the age of ninety-one. Pete called her, alongside Lee Hays (with whom he had formed The Weavers), and Woody Guthrie, the only true genius he had met in this life. Toshi grew up in Greenwich Village and Woodstock, New York, and for many decades she was the brains and organizer behind the many folk festivals in which Pete appeared. Pete had met her, doe sie doe, in 1939 at a square dance. When they married in 1943 Pete couldn't afford a ring or even the three dollars for the marriage certificate – Toshi went to her grandmother and borrowed the money. "Whenever I had an idea that sounded good," Pete said, "Toshi saw to it that I had whatever it took to make it come true." In 2007 Toshi was the producer of the PBS, Emmy Award-winning documentary, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song. Some fifty years prior she had taught Pete how to read marine charts and sail.
And all those many years between she made sure that there was always a cake on the table. Arlo Guthrie loves to tell an anecdote from the early seventies: together with Pete, Arlo was making his first appearance at Carnegie Hall. It was an evening in honor of Woody, and backstage waited a huge chocolate cake. Pete, the moment he set eyes on Toshi's creation, reached for a knife and cut out a quarter. Wow, thought Arlo, for Seeger a cake is made up of four pieces. Pete left the quarter behind and disappeared with the rest into his dressing room. Wow, thought Arlo, for Seeger a cake's made up of two pieces.
Arlo is a born storyteller, and one never knows how much of what he tells is fact, how much is entertainment, but that story, I can assure you, has been verified – plus I can share another Pete/cake tale. Back in the summer of '97, I took Barney McKenna, the banjo player of the Dubliners, with me to visit Pete. Barney was a long-time fan of Pete and Pete was a long-time fan of Barney, but they hadn't seen each other since during the sixties.
We arrived at the log cabin high above the Hudson around dinner time, just as Toshi was serving dessert – a braided nut cake already sliced. Pete pulled the platter to himself at the end of the table and quickly dug in. While his right hand steered a piece to his mouth, his left hand stretched for another. Beneath Pete's ambidextrous assault the nut cake grew smaller and smaller. Toshi reprimanded: "Pete, we have guests." Pete pushed the platter back to the middle of the table. "Sor-ry!" he sang. And then his hands returned to their rhythm, Pete simply reaching further. I am happy to report that the newly arrived guests from Europe did each manage to rescue and savor a piece. Delicious!
The next morning was marvelous, to my mind, legendary. Pete and Barney were deep in conversation, and like a fly on the wall, I was privileged to simply listen in. The bearded musicians sat across from me on the sofa, their instruments on their knees, and as Pete talked his fingers absently plucked at his banjo strings. He told of the day when he was called to appear before communist hunter Joseph McCarthy's Un-American Activities Committee. The year was 1955.
"One smart word and sure enough you were branded a communist," Pete said.
"Not any different today," Barney said.
Pete sang, "Wasn't that a time" – a hit folksong Pete and The Weavers performed before McCarthy's committee banned them from television, radio, and public performance. The Weavers had been quite popular, had prepared the way for Dylan, Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary, and suddenly they were forced to disband – Seeger's lone source of regular income. At the time he and Toshi had three children to raise.
"How did you manage?" Barney wanted to know.
Proudly, Pete said, "I wrote an instructional booklet about how to play the banjo. I took it around to youth camps and folk festivals, sold them myself. At the festivals I played a bit and passed a hat. Hightailed out before the authorities heard I'd turned up."
Pete hummed the melody to Where Have all the Flowers Gone, and the two musicians started in on their banjos. I said, "Everyone in Germany knows Marlene Dietrich's version of the song, but no one knows that it comes from you, Pete."
Seeger laid back his head on the couch and sang to the ceiling, "Zahg meer vo dee Bloomen zind." Pete said that he preferred the German version, and that he had written a letter to Max Colpet, the Deutscher who had done the translation, but that he had never received an answer. Seeger never forgave an unanswered letter; personally, he always did his best to answer every letter that showed up in his mailbox. Did he ever meet Marlene Dietrich?
"Yeah, once. A splendid woman. She strolled straight up to me, threw her arms around my neck, and gave me a kiss."
"Lucky lad," Barney said.
The Hudson shimmered far down below, and the Clearwater – one of the two sloops Pete built with his friends (The Woody Guthrie was the second) – sailed into view, filled with a busload of schoolchildren. Back in the sixties, you could smell the Hudson even way up at the log cabin, and it was the stench that had turned Pete into an environmental activist. Pete sailed up and down the Hudson with his banjo, pulling in at every landing to sing My Dirty Stream and remind people of the river's dependence upon their ecological thinking. Gradually, Pete's Clearwater cruises launched an environmental movement, the 'Hudson River Sloop Clearwater,' which together with 'Scenic Hudson' and the 'Riverkeepers,' helped change the Hudson from the industrial cesspool it was back then, to today's biologically intact ecosystem where crayfish thrive and children can swim. To Pete's mind, environmental change could only be accomplished hand in hand with societal change. "No change in the power structure," he said, "means no change in the environment."
"It's the same thing the other way around," Barney said.
* * *
Pete was born to Charles and Constance Seeger on 3 May 1919 in Patterson, New York. Charles was a composer and pioneer in the study of ethnomusicology; Constance played and taught the violin. The Great Depression filled Pete's formative years and he never felt quite comfortable studying sociology at Harvard. He quit before the finals of his sophomore year to embark on a hitchhiking tour nearly two decades before Kerouac popularized life on the road. "If he encountered a group of people making music on a porch or around a fire, he added himself to it and asked them to teach him the songs," wrote Alec Wilkinson in his biography, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger. "He was tall and thin and earnest and polite. To eat, he made watercolor sketches of a farm from the fields, then knocked on the farmhouse door and asked to trade the drawing for a meal."
On 3 March 1940, Seeger met Woody Guthrie at a "Grapes of Wrath" migrant-worker benefit concert – folk music had found its critical mass and the rest is Songwriters Hall of Fame history. When we invited Pete to attend the Nuclear-Free Future Awards ceremony at Cooper Union's Great Hall as an honorary guest, he accepted at once. He traveled by train from Beacon with daughter Tinja – plus his banjo and guitar! Hardly had our recipients received their awards when Pete climbed onto the stage, joining Patti Smith, Joanne Shenandoah, Peter Gordon, and Liam O'Maonlai. Seeger began his impromptu performance by leading Award recipients, musicians and crowd in Turn, Turn, Turn...
* * *
In November, 2013, I dropped in on Pete one final time. His ax leaned outside against the cabin, and inside the door stood a pair of aluminum canes. Should I worry? No, the canes he didn't actually need – he had purchased them down in New York solely out of political necessity: alongside Arlo Guthrie he had marched thirty-some blocks through Manhattan as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Pete didn't want to slow anybody down, and with the canes he could move along quite gingerly – they stood there as a sort of a souvenir...
A pickup truck with an electric motor stood in front of Seeger's log cabin. In back a bumper sticker read: If the people lead, the leaders will follow. That was one of Pete's central, lifelong messages: the innumerable tiny steps so many people must make in order to effectuate an iota of change. "Sometime or other the leaders have to follow," he is often quoted as saying during interviews – and always with that charismatic conviction that explained his popularity on stage, first together with Woody Guthrie as a singer on the side of the migrant workers and unions, then later as a protest singer against the war in Vietnam. Woody Guthrie had stenciled on his guitar case: This machine kills fascists. When Woody died in 1967, Pete inscribed around the neck of his banjo: This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender. "At first it was about the exploitation of the workers, then against the war, and today it's about the exploitation of the earth – a different kind of war. But it's all part of the same cause: the good fight."
Seeger's formula for political change: A million people must perform a million things. "Picture a children's seesaw," he would say, illustrating with his out-flung arms how a teeter-totter works. "On the low end sits a ton of heavy boulders, piled there by the multinational corporations. And up on the high end, there's a basket with plenty of daylight peeking through. Now what we have to do is fill that basket teaspoon by teaspoon with sand. At first, the sand runs out through the gaps as quick as each teaspoon is added. But then more and more people arrive with their teaspoons, and gradually..." Pete's teeter-totter arms would slowly swivel, inverse, "the basket of sand is the heavier side."
A tiny teaspoon summed up a lot about Seeger – both he and Toshi were distinguished by their material modesty throughout their entire lives. Bob Dylan once called Pete, "a saint," and Joan Baez said that he showed her generation how to live a life worth living. Pete was eighty-eight when Bruce Springsteen introduced him to another generation. The Boss surprised his fans with his The Seeger Sessions album and tour, kicking off a Seeger Renaissance.
Pete, despite misgivings about Obama's stance on uranium mining, teamed with Springsteen at Lincoln Memorial to sing This Land Is Your Land as part of the 2009 inauguration. Suddenly the U.S. media realized that Seeger was still out there performing – for instance together with his grandson Tao or joining up with Arlo Guthrie and band – was still out there raising his voice on behalf of disarmament, peace, and environmental justice. On the 3rd of May 2009 – Pete's 90th birthday – members of that great folk family he had touched over all the years gathered to honor him at Madison Square Garden. In spirit, the nearby Hudson River was also on hand: above the stage, a light string formed the outline of a sailing sloop; the evening's proceeds went to the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater organization.
Pete, the machine in his hands forcing hate to surrender, had toured from peace vigil to peace vigil since the invasion of Iraq, and on the night of his ninetieth birthday he stood proudly upright at the center of the stage, leading his audience of thousands in anti-war sing-alongs. Upright was Pete's way of standing his entire life, upright with his head maybe topped by his trademark stocking cap – the same cap he would wear on chilly nights outside Beacon when he stood upright alone in protest pointing a sign at the highway. The sign held only one word: Peace.
Rest in peace, Pete.
English translation: Craig Eldon Reishus