I was deeply saddened this morning to awake
to the news that Pete Seeger, always one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever
known, passed away of natural causes at age 94. He His wife, Toshi, died last
year after nearly 70 years of marriage.
In a post marking Pete’s 90th birthday,
I recalled listening to Pete’s music since I was a young kid and that I was 20
years old in 1974 when I first met and worked with him when I was an area
co-ordinator/stage manager at the Mariposa Folk Festival and Pete’s concert was
on my stage.
I am grateful for having had the
opportunity to have known Pete for most of my life and to have enjoyed some
small measure of friendship.
I’ve interviewed Pete a number of times,
both for radio and newspapers. When Pete did a surprise
Canadian tour of small
venues in 2008, I interviewed him for the July 3, 2008 issue of the Montreal
(the article also appeared in several other newspapers).
The first thing Pete said to me when I
called him for the interview was, “What can I possibly tell you that you don’t already
There was – there is – always a lot to learn
from Pete Seeger.
Here is that article.
Pete Seeger returns to Montreal
Special To The Gazette
The last time I interviewed Pete Seeger was in 1999 just as he was about to
turn 80. He was planning to stay close to his Hudson River Valley home and just
play a few songs occasionally for school kids or at benefit concerts. It was
unlikely, he said then, that he’d travel far enough from home to perform in
Almost a decade later, though, the still-vigorous Seeger is on his way back to
Montreal. His July 5 concert here kicks off a quickly-arranged, and quickly
sold-out, tour of small venues that also takes him to Toronto, for two nights,
Kingston and Ottawa in the company of acoustic blues revivalist Guy Davis and
his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger of the folk-rocking Mammals. The three will
share the stage, swapping songs and backing each other.
Reached at his home overlooking the Hudson River in upstate New York, Seeger
told me he has fond memories of performing in Montreal.
“Sam Gesser hired me when nobody else would,” Seeger said, referring to the
late Montreal impresario who broke into the concert business with a Seeger
concert in 1952 when most of the folksinger’s performing opportunities were
lost to the McCarthy-era blacklist. Gesser, who died April 1, brought Seeger to
Montreal often over the next four decades.
Seeger is one of the most revered musicians of all time and has been a major
influence on the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen – who’s done two albums
of songs he learned from Seeger LPs – and almost everyone else who’s picked up
a banjo or acoustic guitar in the past 60 years.
Seeger’s lengthy résumé includes forming two legendary folk groups: the Almanac
Singers, with Woody Guthrie, before both shipped out to serve in the Second
World War; and the Weavers, the group that brought folk music to the pop charts
with "Goodnight Irene" and "Tzena Tzena Tzena" in 1949 before being blacklisted.
Seeger has written or co-written scores of enduring songs, including "Where Have
All the Flowers Gone" and "If I Had a Hammer," has made hundreds of recordings,
and has been at the forefront of the civil rights, peace and environmental
“I really don’t take concert tours anymore,” Seeger said when asked about what
made him decide to do this four-city Canadian jaunt. “But my grandson, Tao, is
a great performer, and Guy Davis is a great performer, so I decided to do a few
things with them. The five concerts I’m doing in Canada are more than I’m doing
almost anywhere else.”
Talking to Seeger now, he seems motivated by many of the same concerns that
spurred his activism decades ago. “I think there’s a chance the human race will
survive,” he said. “I’m not as pessimistic as I was after Hiroshima,” referring
to the atomic blast that spurred a lifetime’s devotion to the peace movement.
During the Iraq War, Seeger has been leading weekly peace vigils near his home.
One of Seeger’s greatest successes as an activist has been leading the movement
to clean up the Hudson River. The river was horribly polluted when he founded
the Clearwater organization in the 1970s. Now, he points out, people swim
safely in many parts of the Hudson.
In separate interviews, Guy Davis and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger both spoke about
being directly influenced by Seeger as children.
Davis’s parents, the actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, were longtime friends of
the Seeger family. In 1960, eight-year-old Guy developed a love for the banjo while
attending Camp Killooleet, a kids’ camp in Vermont that was run by John Seeger,
Pete’s brother. Ossie Davis bought his son a banjo and the youngster learned
the instrument from Seeger’s classic book, How to Play the Five-String Banjo.
“Over the years, Pete sparked my interest in Big Bill Broonzy and Lead Belly,
both of whom he had known, and my interest in the 12-string guitar began to
grow. One thing led to another and I wound up going on the road with Pete as an
opening act in the mid-70s,” said Davis. “This tour’s going to be a wonderful
Rodriguez-Seeger grew up playing music with his grandfather and began
performing concerts and recording with him as a teenager in the 1980s. “We
played concerts together for about 13 years.” he recalled.
Wanting to articulate his own musical ideas, Rodriguez-Seeger formed a trio
with Sarah Lee Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie’s daughter, and her husband, Johnny Irion,
in 1999. Two years later, he hooked up with Ruth Ungar and Michael Merenda as
With the Mammals currently on hiatus, Rodriguez-Seeger recently performed a
concert with his grandfather and Davis at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York.
“We had a really good time,” said Rodriguez-Seeger. “We got home and Grandpa
was bouncing off the wall with excitement. ‘Let’s do that again,’ he said.”
The Canadian tour was quickly arranged and generations of folk fans eagerly
snapped up all available tickets.