Remembering Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger died yesterday, after 94 full years of life.

He was a towering figure — musically, environmentally, and as a joyful voice for social justice.

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger

Seeger was a frequent visitor to Westport, from his Hudson River home in Beacon, New York. He sang at many benefit concerts here for civil rights, and against the Vietnam war. He sailed his Clearwater sloop to Compo, to raise awareness of maritime pollution. He visited many local friends.

Seeger’s quartet — the Weavers — revolutionized American music in the 1940s and ’50s. They also put a public face on McCarthyism, when they were caught up in the Red Scare. Seeger was charged with 10 counts of contempt of Congress (and, 5 years later, acquitted). Charges of communism torpedoed the Weavers, but did not stop Seeger from 50 more years of activism.

Fred Hellerman — one of the last 2 remaining Weavers — has lived for many years in Weston.

“Pete lived a remarkable life,” Hellerman told “06880″ this morning. “His impact is too big even to describe. He was keystone of the revival of the whole folk music scene. Without him there would be no Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary and Kingston Trio.”

The Weavers included Pete Seeger (far left) and Fred Hellerman (far right).

The Weavers included Pete Seeger (far left) and Fred Hellerman (far right).

His influence extended to the likes of Bruce Springsteen, a huge fan. A whole new generation was introduced to Pete Seeger when he performed at President Obama’s inauguration.

“Pete had a tremendous ability to get a crowd singing,” Hellerman noted. “He even taught them harmonies. Walt Whitman said ‘I hear America singing,’ but it was Pete Seeger leading them on.”

Hellerman last saw Seeger a month ago, at a memorial service in New York for Seeger’s wife, Toshi. She died just days before their 70th anniversary.

“Pete always said I could pick out a harmony,” the former Weaver said. “I was glad to be there to do it once again for him.

“Pete was a remarkable guy,” Hellerman added. “He was a great model of standing up for what you believe.”

If you’ve got a Pete Seeger memory — from Westport, or anywhere else in the world — click “Comments” below.

 

17 responses to “Remembering Pete Seeger

  1. A great way to remember Pete is to look for a terrific documentary on him made in 1972 by former local filmmaker Bob Elfstrom, called “A Song and a Stone.” Pete was a pacifist, but in the film he mentions that he had become frustrated enough with things in our country that he now carries around a stone (“a time to gather stones together”) not to throw at a person, “but maybe at a window.” He never did. http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/486863/Pete-Seeger-A-Song-and-a-Stone/

  2. It must be pointed out that, while Seeger was undoubtedly on the right side regarding civil rights and water pollution, he did consort with evil in the 1930′s. Specifically, he was among many entertainment/publishing “fellow travelers” who ardently advocated for the US to fight Hitler…UNTIL Stalin signed his infamous pact with Hitler in August, 1939.

    At this time, Seeger began singing songs urging America to stay out of the fight against Hitler, which he and the other fellow-travelers spun around as a war of capitalist imperialism (vs. the war against Fascism as they previously portrayed.)

    All of which was promptly reversed again a little less than 2 years later, when Hitler broke the pact, and invaded the Soviet Union.

    So, Seeger and many others who proclaimed themselves as “anti-Fascists” were, in fact, pro-Stalinists…hardly deserving of praise for their periods of opposing Hitler, and deserving damnation for their support of the 20th century’s 2nd worst mass murderer.

    The fact that educated people in Westport aren’t aware of this, attests to the ability of those in the entertainment/media world to write their own history.

    See this (in The Guardian of all places!) http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2006/apr/14/post33

  3. When I was in college in the ’60′s, there was a folk group a couple of years ahead of me who relied heavily on the Weavers material, and one of the group had been a student of Pete Seeger’s in NYC in middle school. So his music is deeply embedded in me, and of course his activism was always a beacon.

    I met Seeger a couple of times at events in Westchester when I lived in Dobbs Ferry, and once sailed on the Clearwater. He was a lovely human being.

  4. Estelle T,. Margolis

    I met Pete Seeger in 1947 at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. The school was started to teach workers how to form unions,
    which were desperately needed in the South.
    Pete came often for our Friday night Square Dances. He was learning folk

    Songs from Zilphia Horton, the wife of the founder of the school, Myles Horton.
    songs from Zilphia Horton, the wife of the founder of the school, Myles Horton. He also traveled to learn from people like the Carter Family. We had

  5. Estelle T,. Margolis

    (Continuation of my comment) We had local boys in a band. Our students were both white and black and lived together at Highlander for the first time in their lives. We were shot at by the Klan. We had Eleanor Roosevelt on our Board and were designated “A Subversive Activities Organization” for defying the segregation of the races in the South, I spent the year there and Pete came many times. He taught me how to play the 5 string banjo.
    He was

  6. Estelle T,. Margolis

    (continued) He was the most amazing spirit I ever met. He came to the Progressive Party Convention in 1948. Henry Wallace was their third party candidate for President against Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey. Pete electrified that hall in Philadelphia. I saw Henry singing along. No one in the world had of greater impact on follk music. We are eternally grateful to Pete. I will always love him.

  7. Bending over backwards to be fair, Seeger was barely 20 years old at the time of the Stalin Hitler pact, so the flirtation with Stalinism was most certainly a youthful indiscretion, shared by many of Seeger’s generation.

    Also, Seeger, as an old man, made some repudiations for his earlier support of Stalin.

    The older Fellow Travelers — Lillian Hellman is a prime example — certainly deserve more scorn for adhering to the Stalinist line, without the excuse of being young and naive. In addition, Hellman, more than anyone else, was responsible for rewriting the history of this group as dedicated anti-Fascists and anti-McCarthites, without mentioning their own flirtation with an evil dictator.

    • A. David Wunsch

      I’m glad that Blau makes some allowances for Seeger’s youth . Seeger’s mistake is well known to those of us on the left. Blau’s reference to the leftist Guardian essentially concedes this. In a long life one does make errors. Churchill famously praised Mussolini : “[he] has rendered a service to the whole world”, in the 1920′s. As for William F. Buckley, a darling of the American right, he never repudiated his own racism. One might wish to listen to Terri Gross’s interview with him on Fresh Air where he refused to regret his opposition to the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of the following year. At least my hero, Seeger, had the decency to concede his mistake.

      Blau picked an unfortunate day to raise this matter of a youthful error.

      A. David Wunsch
      Staples High School 1956

  8. Lucinda Mirk Setnicka

    When I was a young girl, living on Greens Farms Road, my cousins, aunt, and uncle came for a visit. One night they said they had surprise guests for dinner. It turned out to be Pete Seeger and his wife. After we finished the meal, we all congregated in a huge circle in the dark back yard and enjoyed after-the-meal entertainment by Pete and his banjo. My favorite? “There’s a Hole in the Bucket,” which everyone joined in on…and kept us young kids enthralled as the story of “Dear Liza” wound its way back to the beginning. All these years later it is one of my most vivid memories of a great Greens Farms night under the stars.

  9. Pete introduced me to the power and passion of music and is one of the main reasons I decided to sing to people for a living. When he came to Westport on the Clearwater, he gave a concert at the Unitarian Church. As usual, there were right-wing protesters outside. In the pew in front of ours was one of the protesters, listening to Pete’s music. During one of the more rousing songs, the protester’s hand was draped over the back of the pew, and I could see his hand and fingers moving and tapping to the rhythm of the music. He just couldn’t help himself. Pete’s presence and delivery was that strong! Later, after I moved to Vermont, I had the privilege of being the opening act for Pete and Arlo at Sugarbush Mountain. Pete and my father, William S. Gailmor, had shared many a bill at Henry Wallace rallies around the country. Right before I went on, I went up to Pete and said “I’ve always wanted to meet you. My name is Jon Gailmor.” He said, without hesitating, “Oh yeah, Bill…” I’ll never forget those two moments and every other moment Pete and I were on the planet at the same time. There’s never been anyone like him. Never will. He lived his music and set the example for us all. For the sake of the human race, we must continue what he started.

  10. marcia K falk

    Just two months ago on Nov. 28th, I attended what was probably Pete Seeger’s last concert. He joined Arlo Gutherie on stage at Carnegie Hall with Arlo’s children and grandchildren. His magic presence and warmth embraced the full house of adoring fans. In full voice and playing the banjo, he guided us in This Land is Your Land. A true American treasure, a voice of clarity in a world of chaos, a kind soul, and a freedom fighter–we all stood together and bid him good by with a standing ovation.

  11. Alice Horrigan

    Probably in his late 60s then, Pete Seeger was at a friend’s apartment in New Haven after a concert, having a snack, and I was always impressed that he got up from the kitchen table to do the dishes. He didn’t have to win respect, there weren’t many dishes so it wasn’t that his help was really needed. It was almost as if he was making a point–not standing apart in his fame, joining in on workaday tasks.

  12. Linda Gramatky Smith

    I have Pete Seeger to thank for literally changing my life. I grew up in Westport when there were a lot of Republicans here and my parents were middle-of-the-road Republicans (never voting for Barry Goldwater, however). I joined the Republican Club at Staples and at Bates College, and presumed that the Republicans’ belief that ANYone could “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” was true. And then … my husband and I went to a concert given by Pete Seeger and the Rev. Frederick Kirkpatrick sponsored by the Unitarian Society in Ridgewood, NJ on February 5, 1970. Our son was only two and our daughter 3 months old, but what I heard absolutely changed my heart. I heard that there were hurting people out there and there were things that each of us could do. Within a few months I was volunteering in Paterson, NJ, for a neighborhood organization, doing the secretarial work that if someone in the community could do it, they would be out earning a living. Our two children went to Paterson Ecumenical Preschool one day a week and as I spoke with other mothers, I learned many lessons. One of my favorite stories from that time was the day I was driving the kids home and Andrew, age 3, said “Mommy, the kids in PEP look different from me.” “Oh, really?” After a pause, he said, “Yes, they all have brown hair and I have blond”! His seeing the only difference as hair color, not skin color, has stayed with him all his life and he is such a decent 46 year old. Because of Pete Seeger, our family joined the grape and lettuce boycotts and helped the neighborhood group, Northside Forces, to make a difference in their city. Thank you, Pete, and RIP. You helped all of us to care about “the least of these, my brethren.”

  13. A. David Wunsch

    Thanks, Linda Smith . That was excellent.
    A. David Wunsch
    Staples High School, 1956

  14. Pete Seeger was the inspiration for my passion for folk music and for learning to play guitar. Back in the 50′s his nephew attended the same boarding school as I did, so Pete would come up to visit….and inevitably, end up in a pick up session with several of the students. I am so grateful for that gift…he was a true spiritual mentor for us all.

  15. Dan, what year did Seeger bring Clearwater to Compo beach?