The Friday Morning Listen: Pete Seeger – We Shall Overcome: Complete Carnegie Hall Concert (1963)

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I’ve got no new thoughts to add to this week’s mass of Pete Seeger tributes. His long and inspirational life has been covered extensively from many angles. More interesting to me though, were the many comments that flowed like a thought wave from various corners of the Internet. From friends to random strangers, that wave contained both love and hate. Not surprisingly, the love won out.

There were people who got Seeger’s history wrong, refusing to acknowledge the whole story. Some folks admitted to philosophical differences while still praising the work: “I’m a conservative, but Pete Seeger was an AMERICAN!” Most common of all were the simple and gracious statements of influence. During his final time with Seeger, Peter Yarrow said to him “You’ve been my inspiration my whole life.” And a friend of mine made this statement on Facebook: “Peter Seeger was exactly the kind of man I wish I could be.”

One of the most moving stories I came across this week was from a friend of a friend. It was her Pete Seeger story. It’s a simple story, and I can’t quite put my finger on why it moved me like it did. There was no difference between Seeger the celebrity and Seeger the man. It was just a weekend, a morning wakeup song, and a loaned sweater. Thanks Pete.

A friend invited me to relate my Pete Seeger story this morning… It feels a bit self-indulgent and gratuitous to do so, today of all days, but I’ll try to keep it short. In college at UMASS Amherst I was paling around and platonically sharing a bed with this tall musician named Tao Rodriguez (who apparently has a Wikipedia page now). We were coming up on the UMASS fall break, and Tao asked me if I’d be interested in a long weekend trip to upstate New York to stay with his grandparents. His grandfather was “a musician,” Tao said, and he thought we’d have fun up there.

So, we’re already several hours on the road in my Subaru when it is casually revealed that this “musician grandfather” is in fact Pete Seeger. We arrived at the family house on the Hudson in the dead of night, and had to sneak in quietly. The first time I laid eyes on Pete Seeger, he was fast asleep next to his wife Toshi, snoring loudly in the bedroom we had to sneak past, with his long legs dangling off the end of the bed (he was a VERY tall man). Tao and I climbed up to an attic bedroom lined with bookshelves and great old books, and snuggled down under some thick old quilts to sleep. Several hours later, I’m awakened to heavy boot-steps climbing the attic stairs, while an unmistakable baritone voice sang softly, “Good morning to you! Good morning to you! We’re all in our places with bright shiny faces…” Gave me goosebumps, of course.

So, then we all spent that weekend very casually… cutting and stacking firewood, eating organic/vegan food prepared by Toshi, playing music now and again… The “This Machine Surrounds Hate” banjo hung humbly in the hallway next to Pete’s bedroom, before it was stolen several years later. Pete gave me a brief banjo lesson that I barely remember… I feel guilty for saying this, but I also couldn’t help myself from peeking into the Roladex that was in a public place in the living room area (which contained home numbers for people like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, etc…)

Overall it was a very cold, but lovely weekend on the Seeger homestead high above the Hudson river. I remember that I didn’t bring enough to wear for the weekend, so Pete loaned me a slate-blue wool sweater with a few holes in it, that I wore for most of the visit. When I left, Toshi told me to keep it (because it was still very cold), saying, “Don’t worry about it, we have others!” So I still do have that sweater, somewhere… I guess I ought to find out where it is, and maybe start keeping it in a different manner from now on. And… well, I suppose I wasn’t successful in keeping this story short, but I’ll never forget that weekend! Long live Pete Seeger, wherever you are now!

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