I grew up wanting to be Pete Seeger. Problem was I couldn’t sing; I never got the 5-string banjo down no matter how closely I followed Pete’s instruction manual and accompanying record, “How to Play the 5-String Banjo;” and try as my 12-year-old-self did in front of the mirror, I could never get my Adam’s apple to jut out like Pete’s.
The first time I saw him was in the mid-1960s at his annual Carnegie Hall Thanksgiving concert. My sister and I had stage seats, and we came home with a souvenir: a sheet of wrapping paper Toshi had made out of newspaper — with a Japanese symbol for peace. Looking back, what I really wonder is that Carnegie Hall allowed Pete a log on stage with an ax, and he duly did some chopping.
At the Newport Folk Festival in 1969 Pete was on right after Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon. He came out and said he’d just watched it on TV backstage and had written a song. He “taped” the lyrics to the microphone stand with some chewing gum. I don’t know if the song ever had another performance, but talk about “ripped from the news.”
The passion of songs like the vehemently anti-war “Waist Deep In the Big Muddy” spoke loud and clear to a budding lefty in high school, who tried his best to emulate the 12-string guitar sound Pete had on “Turn, Turn, Turn” and loudly sang “If I Had A Hammer” in the privacy of my room (truth be to Peter, Paul & Mary’s version).
Today, I give a copy of the complete Pete Seeger Town Hall children’s concert CD to every newborn I know. Everyone should hear “Abiyoyo” growing up. Everyone should know what it means to sing along. I’ve had young families tell me they knew some of those songs, but never knew where they came from. It’s my own small contribution to what Pete called “the folk process.”
For all the times I saw him over the last 45 years or so, on the sloop Clearwater, at festivals, in concert, I never met him. The last time I saw him was this past Thanksgiving when Arlo Guthrie turned his Thanksgiving concert (which he first started doing together with Pete) into a tribute to Pete, who was frail and a little forgetful, but sitting center stage the whole night. If the banjo playing was largely stilled, and the words tough to find, Pete still knew just how to command that Carnegie spotlight. Wasn’t that a time.