The Pete Seeger I RememberNews at Home
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Allan M. Winkler is a Distinguished Professor of History at Miami University in Ohio. He is the author of Life Under a Cloud: American Anxiety About the Atom.
Pete Seeger, the father of American folk music, died on Monday evening at the age of 94. Wiry and spry, he still played his long-necked banjo with the same exuberance he’d shown for decades until the very end. And in the process, he became known the world round and left a powerful legacy. Singing first with the Almanac Singers, then the Weavers, and finally on his own, Seeger found himself in the forefront of every important social movement of the past 75 years. And at the same time, he became a mentor to virtually every aspiring folksinger in the 1950s and 1960s, such figures as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, Tom Paxton, Arlo Guthrie, and dozens of others.
I was lucky enough to have gotten to know him as I was writing a short biography: “To Everything There Is a Season”: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song. I interviewed him half a dozen times, usually bringing my guitar along, for he was always willing to play together. I was unsure the first time I went to his home, but brought my guitar with me just in case and it sat in the middle of his living room as we talked for several hours. Finally, after he made us lunch, I asked if he would do me a favor and I pointed to the banjo on the wall, the one with the phrase “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” He smiled, and said of course, but only if I would play with him. And I did. Over time, as I got to know him and his family better, I brought my wife, and once my sister, along, and he was always welcoming. Just before my book was published in 2009, I asked if I could bring a couple of colleagues to his home in Beacon, New York on a Sunday afternoon in January to play music together. And so, with our wives with us, Dan Cobb, now at UNC Chapel Hill, Dick Polenberg, at Cornell, and I sat in his living room with a fire blazing, looking over the Hudson River, 2 banjos, 2 acoustic guitars, for about 2½ hours. It doesn’t get any better than that. After the book appeared, I taught a senior seminar on Folk Music at Miami University, and on a beautiful fall day, I brought a dozen of my students to Beacon to meet Pete, talk with him, sing with him, and appreciate all that he gave us.
Another time, I asked if I could come by with my wife for a few hours when I was in the New York area. Certainly, he said, but only if we would accompany him to a peace demonstration, for this was just after the start of the Iraq War. And so we piled into his car and drove 15 or 20 minutes to the intersection of 2 state highways, got out, set up signs asking motorists to honk if they wanted peace, and took out instruments and began to sing. Despite a light drizzle, we were all delighted to be with him making a statement to anyone who would listen.
In later years, he was fond of reflecting on the state of the world. Widely read, he loved ruminating about the absurdities of the modern condition, but always with a sense that change was possible with enough good will.
Seeger dedicated his life to getting people to sing together. In concerts, he enlisted the audience’s help. He revived old songs and taught them to people who had never heard them before. “I begin to feel like old Grandpa,” he once remarked. “But I’m proudest of all that I’ve been able to be a kind of a link in a chain for a lot of people to learn some good songs.” He made me feel as though I was part of that chain, too.
I miss him already.
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