Pete Seeger says his memory isn’t what it used to be, but ask him to recount tales of Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, the Smothers Brothers and many more, and he won’t disappoint you.
Telling stories through his music and advocating for others is something Seeger has been doing for more than 70 years now, and while he is semiretired — he turned 94 Friday — he’s not about to put away his banjo just yet. Next Sunday, Seeger will partner with his sister, Peggy Seeger, for a benefit concert at the Mainstage at Proctors. Produced by Eighth Step at Proctors, the event is raising money for Camp Killooleet, a summer camp in Hancock, Vt., for children ages 9-14 that was owned and operated by John Seeger, an older brother who died in February of 2010 at the age of 95.
Peggy Seeger, 14 years younger than her half brother Pete and every bit the activist, is a folk musician who has spent much of her life in Great Britain.
“I don’t see my sister but once or twice a year now, so we’re going to have a lot of fun,” Pete Seeger said in a phone interview from his home in Beacon in the lower Hudson Valley. “She’s lived in England and she’s got a partner in New Zealand, but we’re going to try to get together in Schenectady a few days early and do some rehearsing. We’re going to go over all of our songs.”
Peggy and Pete Seeger
WHAT: A benefit concert produced by Eighth Step at Proctors for Camp Killooleet in Hancock, Vt.
WHERE: Mainstage at Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday, May 12
HOW MUCH: $54-$24
MORE INFO: 346-6204, proctors.org
The writer of classic American standards like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn,” Seeger gained national prominence when The Weavers, a group he formed with Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman, topped the charts in 1950 with “Goodnight Irene.” But, because of his socialist sympathies, membership in the Communist Party and an arrest for contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions from the House Un-American Activities Committee, Seeger was blacklisted from any commercial broadcast for 17 years. His conviction was reversed in 1962, but it wasn’t until September of 1967 that he was reintroduced to America on the popular television show “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”
Much more recently, Seeger performed at President Barack Obama’s inaugural concert in January of 2009, and then celebrated his 90th birthday at Madison Square Garden in New York during a televised PBS special on May 3 later that year. In October of 2011 he was part of a solidarity march with the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and then in January of this year he was in Albany singing “This Land is Your Land” at an anti-fracking demonstration. His most recent performance was at the Community Unitarian Church in White Plains on April 7.
“He decided to retire a number of years ago, but it’s hard for him to say no,” said daughter Tinya, one of three Seeger children. “My mom likes it when he stays home, but it’s nice to get out too, and he just sang not too long ago at a local church in front of around 400 people. He has his causes, and he likes to help them raise money.”
Seeger was born on May 3, 1919, in New York City and grew up in Patterson, Putnam County, not too far from the Connecticut state line. His father, Charles Seeger, was a composer and musicologist trained at Harvard and hired by the University of California, Berkeley, in 1912 to form the school’s music department. The elder Seeger was also an activist whose outspoken pacifism during World War I cost him his West Coast gig in 1918.
Pete Seeger’s mother, Constance de Clyver Edson, studied at the Paris Conservatory of Music and was a concert violinist and instructor at The Juilliard School. The couple moved to Patterson but divorced in 1928.
“After my mother and father split, he married an amazing composer named Ruth Crawford,” said Seeger. “Her work became known to string quartets around the world, and Peggy has that same talent. My sister is an extraordinary songwriter.” Ruth and Charles Seeger were also the parents of folk singer Mike Seeger, who died in 2009.
Pete Seeger also followed in his father’s footsteps by attending Harvard, but never graduated.
“I ran a newsletter when I was there, but I got too interested in politics and lost my scholarship after only a year and a half,” he said. “But I was glad to leave. I learned the most important thing I needed there, and that was how to use a library.”
It was two years earlier that Seeger learned how to play the banjo.
“I wanted to play in a jazz band at the prep school I was going to, and my ukulele just wasn’t loud enough,” said Seeger. “I switched to a tenor banjo, and then my father took me to a festival in Asheville, North Carolina, and that was the first time I heard someone play the five-string banjo. I couldn’t wait until I learned more about it.”
By the time he was 20, Seeger had worked on three different school newspapers, but his aspirations of a career in journalism were soon supplanted by his natural affinity for music.
“I was still trying to get a job at a bigger newspaper, but I had an aunt who taught the fifth grade at the Dalton School on the East Side, and she wanted me to come sing some songs to her kids. They paid me $5 for an hour’s work, which for me was having fun. It seemed like stealing, but I took the money and quit looking for an honest job.”
Seeger quickly became a successful musician. He met Woody Guthrie in March of 1940 at a “The Grapes of Wrath” migrant worker benefit, and spent part of the year touring the country with Guthrie, hopping freight trains.
“I broke my first banjo jumping out of one of those freight cars, and went back to the same pawn shop and bought another one for 10 bucks,” said Seeger. “Woody’s wife went back to the panhandle of Texas. He wanted to travel and I was willing to tag along.”
Later that year, Seeger and Guthrie formed The Almanac Singers, a group of anti-war, anti-racism and pro-union musicians. When the war came, however, Seeger joined the Army and Guthrie the Merchant Marines, and each did their part. In 1943, before being shipped overseas, Seeger married Toshi-Aline Ota. They will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary on July 20.
Seeger returned to performing after the war, but his communist sympathies made things difficult. While he had joined the Young Communist League in 1936 at the age of 17, and then the Communist Party itself in 1942, Seeger said in his PBS biography that he slowly “drifted away” from that political philosophy after the war. In 1949, however, when black actor, singer, socialist and Communist Party supporter Paul Robeson invited Seeger to join him for a concert in Peekskill, Seeger didn’t say no. Seven years later, Robeson would take the Fifth Amendment when asked before Congress whether he was a member of the Communist Party. In 1942, some strong remarks he made in support of communism prompted the Peekskill Riots. A large crowd of protesters gathered at the event and threw rocks at cars carrying the performers to and from the concert. In one car was Seeger, Toshi and Guthrie.
“Paul gave an extraordinary concert, and then all of us had rocks thrown at us,” said Seeger. “But I realized that it was like getting inoculated against fascism,” said Seeger. “You get inoculated against smallpox, your arm gets a case of smallpox, but the rest of your body is alerted and does not get smallpox. What happened in September of 1949 is that Peekskill got a case of fascism, but the rest of America didn’t. When people saw pictures of men and women with children with blood streaming down their faces, they didn’t like it. We weren’t Germany. The country didn’t like what they saw on television, and they didn’t go for it.”
While he may have “drifted away” from communism, in 1955 Seeger was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and his lack of cooperation and subsequent contempt of Congress charge extended his long hiatus from American television. Still, he doesn’t think back on that time of his life as a particular hardship.
“It wasn’t tough at all,” said Seeger, his voice rising. “I didn’t give a s--- about it. Woody didn’t like working on TV and neither did I. They wanted you to sing what they wanted you to sing. I also found out I could perform at college campuses and didn’t have to sing in a goddamned nightclub and compete with liquor for attention. I was making a good living, and I was singing the songs I wanted to sing.”
He does, however, appreciate what the Smothers Brothers did for him.
“The Smothers Brothers really helped, and I guess it would have been nice to reach a few more people on television,” said Seeger, who in 1966 founded The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, an organization whose goal is to protect the Hudson River, its tributaries and surrounding wetlands. “But I wasn’t worried about it. I was on the Dick Cavett show once and some guy stood up and asked, ‘Are you blacklisted?’ I said, ‘I don’t have the faintest idea. All I know is I don’t get jobs on television, except for talk shows like this.’ Dick Cavett looked at me and said, ‘Mr. Seeger, you are blacklisted.’ ”
While Seeger remembers performing on the steps of Schenectady’s City Hall a “long time ago,” his upcoming visit to Schenectady will be his first ever at Proctors, according to Margaret Rosenkrantz, director of the Eighth Step. Originally a coffeehouse near Washington Park in Albany that began hosting folk music concerts in 1967, the Eighth Step called various venues in the Albany area home before moving to Proctors in 2007.
“It will be the first time he’s ever walked out on that stage,” said Rosenkrantz. “When we were in Albany, he would come up almost every year, and I remember the first concert I ever ran, 1985 at Page Hall in Albany, Pete came and helped us with a fundraiser for Ed Bloch, who was running for Congress against Gerald Solomon. He walked in with his sack over his shoulder and his guitar on his other arm and said, ‘Do you need me onstage right now, or do I have time for a shower.’ ”
According to Rosenkrantz, Seeger’s onstage persona is a good reflection of the kind of individual he is.
“He’s exactly who you might think he is,” she said. “What you see is who he is. He’s so delightful, and also very professional, without being dismissive of anyone, ever.”
Seeger isn’t resting on his laurels, either. He’s still tinkering with some of the best songs in the American songbook.
“I wrote four verses to ‘Turn, Turn, Turn,’ but my wife told me there ought to be verses for children,” said Seeger. “So I put five extra verses written by my wife, and one of them goes like this: ‘A time for work, a time for play, a time for night, a time for day, a time for tears, a time for hope, a time for dirt, a time for soap.’ I like that one.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or email@example.com.