On the Beat

January 28, 2014

Remembrances of the late great Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, who has passed away at the ripe old age of 94, is remembered by his fellow artists

Sad news from the world of activist-protest music, Pete Seeger has passed on. As word has spread, musicians, artists and public figures in North Carolina and elsewhere are releasing statements. We’ll compile some of them here.

Also, check out our photo gallery; and here is Triangle alumnus Johnny Irion performing Seeger’s “Dr. King” with his wife Sarah Lee Guthrie; a piece by local musician Tom Maxwell (formerly of Squirrel Nut Zippers); and an excellent remembrance by former Triangle resident Peter Blackstock, who recently returned to his hometown newspaper in Austin, Texas.

* * * *

I usually do a little meditation and prayer every night before I go to sleep - Just part of the routine. Last night, I decided to go visit Pete Seeger for a while, just to spend a little time together, it was around 9 p.m. So I was sitting in my home in Florida, having a lovely chat with Pete, who was in a hospital in New York City. That’s the great thing about thoughts and prayers - you can go or be anywhere.

I simply wanted him to know that I loved him dearly, like a father in some ways, a mentor in others and just as a dear friend a lot of the time. I’d grown up that way - loving the Seegers - Pete & Toshi and all their family.

I let him know I was having trouble writing his obituary (as I’d been asked) but it seemed just so silly and I couldn’t think of anything that didn’t sound trite or plain stupid. “They’ll say something appropriate in the news,” we agreed. We laughed, we talked, and I took my leave about 9:30 last night.

“Arlo’,” he said, sounding just like the man I’ve known all of my life, “I guess I’ll see ya later.” I’ve always loved the rising and falling inflections in his voice. “Pete,” I said. “I guess we will.”

I turned off the light and closed my eyes and fell asleep until very early this morning, about 3 a.m. when the texts and phone calls started coming in from friends telling me Pete had passed away.

“Well, of course he passed away!” I’m telling everyone this morning. “But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.”

- Arlo Guthrie (via Facebook)

* * * *

One of my earliest childhood memories is being dandled on Pete’s knee, while his banjo rested on the other. It must have been a gathering of farmers and leftists in South Jersey somewhere. Many years later, Pete sent me a note apologizing that I wasn’t asked to perform at Newport the year before, but inviting me for the next season - I still have it, signed “Pete” with the famous banjo drawing.

The last time I saw him and Toshi was at a Clearwater concert. I asked him how he was doing, and he said “Like most men, I didn’t spend enough time with her.” I know there was a gaping hole in his life when she was gone, but he continued to work and inspire us all.

I cannot imagine a life without Pete. From the time I remember, he informed my moral and ethical being, through his songs, and through the righteous life he led. He took on giants, and beat them. And through it all, he remained approachable and human. As an artist and a human being, I would be proud to leave that kind of legacy.

- Janis Ian (via Facebook)

* * * *

In the early 1980s, my sister Betty came back from college with a cassette tape of “Precious Friend,” a double live LP by Pete Seeger & Arlo Guthrie. We listened to it all summer. It was my introduction to folk music: Pete, Arlo, Woody, Lee Hays, Tom Paxton, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Wabash Cannonball.”

Fast forward to the early 1990s, when I was trying to break into the music business as a recording engineer. I was dissatisfied working the late shift at a mid-town Manhattan recording studio that focused on hip-hop. One day a project came in where a producer was mixing a Pete Seeger project for a video. I was lucky to soak it in and realized I wanted to be doing something else, something more meaningful. That led me to move to Washington, D.C., where I started volunteering at Smithsonian Folkways.

Fast forward to the early 2000s, and I found myself the Curator of the Southern Folklife Collection with Pete Seeger’s phone number in my hand. I needed to ask Pete to write a letter of support for a grant proposal I was writing to the Grammy Foundation to preserve the “Broadside Tapes.” I was nervous and in awe of my hero and said as much to Pete. He immediately put me at ease with great humility and grace. I told him what I was working on and what we needed. He said, “I’ll never remember unless we do this now.” So Pete and I composed a letter of support over the phone and he wrote it out by hand. The letter arrived a week later in a small handwritten envelope. Pete had signed our letter with his signature and the familiar illustration of his long-neck banjo. I’ll never forget Pete’s warm generosity. A precious friend.

- Steve Weiss, Southern Folklife Collection/UNC-Chapel Hill

* * * *

What can anyone possibly say about Pete Seeger that even begins to express the depth and breadth of his life. I met him the one time I went to the Newport Festival. He was wearing a red paisley shirt that I saw him in or one very like it many times again. I guess he, like me, finds something and rolls with it. I’ll tell one story that I always think of when I hear his name. Several years ago he took his boat that he built himself, modeled after a Dutch sloop, down the Hudson and gave a series of small concerts at various marinas and piers. At each one he spoke of the deplorable condition of the Hudson and urged people to join together to clean it up. At one stop the folks had put together a little reception with food and drinks to welcome him and his message. He said as he pulled away he noticed a clean-up crew pushing all the refuse from the party into the river. He chuckled, and I think his sense of humor must have been crucial to his stamina and resolve in bringing to light the myriad issues that he involved himself in for most of his 94 years. Mazeltov, Pete Seeger. I’m very sad today, but uplifted by your life.

- Tracy Nelson, lead singer of Mother Earth (via Facebook)

* * * *

Howdy howdy folks - Pete Seeger died last night at age 94. For a lot of people, he was the guy who introduced them to folk music, and that introduction helped them to get involved in acoustic music of various kinds. There are a lot of rock and roll people who credit Seeger as an influence on them, most notably Bruce Springsteen. He was an extremely inclusive performer, known for getting his audiences to sing along on various kinds of songs during his concerts. His political activism is well known, and his environmental work with helping to clean up the Hudson River may be his most lasting tangible legacy. He also hosted a TV show, Rainbow Quest, which was on public TV in New York. This was broadcast during the time that he was basically blacklisted from commercial TV for his political beliefs. Rainbow Quest was an interview and music show, and among his guests were traditional and country performers - people like the Stanley Brothers, Cousin Emmy, Roscoe Holcomb, Johnny Cash & June Carter, the New Lost City Ramblers (featuring his half-brother Mike) and others. Let’s salute Pete Seeger and do what he would want us to do - keep the music flowing and stay involved.

- Jim Watson, Red Clay Ramblers co-founder

* * * *

I think that every musician I know in the folk and traditional world has some of Pete Seeger’s musical DNA. His activism, his zest for life and his body of work all serve as a model and inspiration. And his banjo playing… Wow, just wow. As a young player, I got a reassuring glimpse into what could be through his “How to Play the 5-String Banjo.” As an older player, I am continually struck at the beauty of his playing, and his subtle mastery of so many different styles. Rest in peace.

- Joe Newberry

* * * *

When I heard this morning that Pete had passed away my heart hurt. I knew that he was old and that he would not be here forever but he had changed my life so much that I never imagined a world with out him.

I remember the first photo I ever saw of a 5-string banjo. It was a long-neck Pete Seeger model. Later when I saw all the other regular banjos I always felt like the banjo necks were too short.

When Uwe was 10 or 11 years old a good friend gave him the Pete Seeger Songbook, it became our first source of American folk music and for years to come we learned many songs from it.

Pete Seeger became my inspiration for what the banjo could do. On the back cover of the blue Pete Seeger book was a picture of Pete sitting underneath a tree holding his banjo and group of children siting around him. This picture is still present in my head today and reminds me of how music can connect us all through the power of hope, happiness and peace. For Pete it was never about the show, always about the togetherness and the embrace of the positive energies in all of us.

The connecting of people through the singing of songs accompanied by the strumming sounds of a banjo will forever be remembered by the name of Pete Seeger.

He changed the word in to a better place for all, and I am deeply thankful to know that I have had him as a role model in my life.

- Jens Kruger

* * * *

I’m not sure there’s been a more influential or inspiring figure in American folk music than Pete Seeger, and it’s a happy fact that he became infatuated with the banjo on a visit with his father to Asheville’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in the mid-1930s. He was especially enamored of the banjo playing of a woman named Samantha Bumgarner.

I’d seen Pete perform a number of times in concert, and in 1981 served as a consultant to the Hudson River Revival festival that he and his wife Toshi established at Croton-on-Hudson, New York. It was a thrilling opportunity to meet with him and witness the very last performance of his legendary group The Weavers. Years later, he’d heard that I’d been involved in a project to document the Menhaden fisherman, who operated from a fishery in Beaufort, and had used the power of song to regulate and ease the work of pulling in by hand net that was laden with thousands of shimmering fish. He’d been out with Virginia fisherman years before and was enthralled with the majestic worksong tradition, and just wanted to chat about it.

Pete Seeger’s humanity was as profound as his talent to move us with music that appealed to the very best in all of us. We were lucky to have him on the planet for as long as we did.

- George Holt, director of arts programs/NC Museum of Art

* * * *

Once called “America’s tuning fork,” Pete Seeger believed deeply in the power of song. But more importantly, he believed in the power of community - to stand up for what’s right, speak out against what’s wrong, and move this country closer to the America he knew we could be. Over the years, Pete used his voice - and his hammer - to strike blows for worker’s rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation. And he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger. Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to Pete’s family and all those who loved him.

- President Barack Obama

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David Menconi
News & Observer music critic David Menconi's random (and we do mean random) musings about all things related to music and culture of the popular variety.

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