Pete Seeger, singer of folksongs, became the icon of American folk music against his will. He insisted the song was more important than its singer, and the listener was more important than the performer. Thus, when I recorded him at Fermilab almost two decades ago, Pete insisted on having eight microphones in the audience to supplement the two on-stage.
Join The Midnight Special for a tribute to Pete Seeger, Saturday at 4:00 PM. Folkstage will be live with Ben Bedford at 6:00 PM. The Midnight Special will air in its entirety following Saturday evening’s live broadcast from Lyric Opera.
Also, Friday night at 11:00 PM tune in for a re-broadcast of Pete Seeger with Studs Terkel.
Pete Seeger: idealist, iconoclast, and inspiration. He welcomed the friendship of anyone who loved music; his humble cabin in Beacon, New York became a gathering place of song. Pete lacked the gorgeous voice of his contemporaries such as Theo Bikel; he may have lacked the banjo and guitar finesse of the many he inspired to take up those instruments; but it was his spirit and his presence; his complete conviction and caring that always carried the day, the movement, and his popularity.
By the time you read this thousands of words will have been posted about Pete. No singer in America became as synonymous with a musical genre as Pete did with folk music. He contributed so many songs that fall under the broad definition of folk. Thus, these words may pale in comparison to those spoken and written by the multitudes that admired and loved him. You can easily find the minutiae and details of his life elsewhere.
A good cause always found Pete with his banjo ready to take the stage. But unlike many performers who volunteer for benefits, Pete always made sure the audience understood the cause. He was selfless in the donation of his talent, often to the utter frustration of his professional manager Harold Leventhal (who fortunately deeply believed in Pete).
All mentions of Pete’s life include references to his political beliefs which many considered extreme, as well as his admittedly sometimes mistaken and wrong-headed causes. Pete’s beauty is that he never betrayed what he truly believed, yet he would acknowledge his misconceptions. He sacrificed a great deal of fame and financial success for his integrity.
Pete Seeger inspired me to present folk music on the radio—in fact he launched a million singers of songs. In my case, it started with Judy Collins singing poetry from the Bible on AM radio. I pursued that song to its source. The next thing I knew, I was seeing Pete Seeger at Orchestra Hall—my first concert. We all joined hands to sing “We Shall Overcome.” How could I not be influenced and beguiled? Nearly every folk musician I’ve met expressed a debt to Pete Seeger.
No remembrance of Pete is possible without also acknowledging Toshi. Toshi Aline Ohta met Pete at a square dance in 1938; they married in 1943. Other than Pete’s service in the military during World War II, they were inseparable. Toshi and Pete grew into a single spirit; and she guided him into the man he became. When Toshi died in July 2013, I knew Pete would join her soon, even though he was still chopping wood until a few weeks before he died.
While the blacklist penalized Pete for well over a decade, people today—of nearly all political beliefs—realize and recognize he wove the fabric of American culture. Pete recorded scores of albums and hundreds, if not thousands of concerts, but the actual document of his life lies not in tape, vinyl, polycarbonate or memory chips. Pete’s voice rings out every time people sing along, when they sing and protest for peace, justice and equality; or when they make music for the pure joy of it.
“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”