Sunday, February 2, 2014

Pete Seeger and Me

Letter #10

My father used to call me Ellie Lou.  Did that come from Skip to My Lou? I learned the song, aged three or four, through Pete’s children’s records. When I was a few years older, my father took my seven-year-old brother, Joel, and nine-year-old me to see Pete in a church. I saw the word “communist” for the first time the next day, when I read an article about the performance in the Pittsburgh Press.  Years later I learned that presenters wouldn’t book him in concert venues during those hard years of the Cold War. So Pete pioneered the children’s record market in the mid-1950s at the heart of the baby boom.  He also went to college campuses, one of the first being Oberlin College in 1955. Student Joe Hickerson penned the final verse of Where Have All the Flowers Gone, one of the many Pete songs we sang in our Jewish community center summer camp in the mid-Sixties, along with Guantanamera and If I Had A Hammer. I wonder if that wasn’t a subconscious reason why I chose Oberlin. Anyway, Pete was the invited “speaker” at graduation, a generation later. In high school, I would play his album of story songs over and over, and the Carnegie Hall concert with the Freedom Singers from the Civil Rights movement made me want to go down South.  But at age fourteen, I was too young. By the mid Sixties, Pete was back on the public concert stage, and age sixteen? I left a note on his empty chair during intermission at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute with a heartfelt message that I was a Zionist, but he made me feel proud to be an American, or something to that effect.  I cheered him on, as I watched him finally get on major network TV to sing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy on the Smothers’ Brothers Comedy Hour.
At Oberlin in the early ‘70s, Pete’s father, Charles, a co-founder of the field of ethnomusicology, spent a weekend with a small group of students, including me, thanks to his connection to our music professor. At the time almost ninety, his headstand yoga position was rod-straight, and unforgettable, not to mention his brilliant mind, grace and curiosity.

After college, I moved to Berkeley, where I got the job of researching the first biography of Pete Seeger, working for the author, David King Dunaway. Every day, I would head for the UC Berkeley library, and methodically make my way through the pages of the Daily Worker, New Masses, PM, and other leftwing American newspapers, creating a chronology of Pete’s performances from printed sources. Later I transcribed hours and hours of interviews that David had conducted with key figures in Pete’s life. I still hear Charles’ voice reflecting on Pete’s concern about the sheer power he knew he had at the height of the folk music revival. On the level of documentable facts, I knew more about Pete than I knew about my own father. 

I met Pete for the first time during that period, at the home of Alan Ohta, the brother of Pete’s wife, Toshi.  By age 21, Pete was my role model for life.  Only then did I learn that behind him was the formidable force of this small woman, whose grandfather had translated Marx into Japanese, and who produced countless numbers of Pete’s concerts, co-founded the Newport Folk Festival, and directed films.

In the summer of 1978(?) I went to see Pete in a free outdoor concert at Stern Grove in San Francisco. I was sitting in the sun with friends, after giving up looking for my parents among the ten thousand people crowded onto picnic blankets and chairs in the wide meadow. My brother Joel, then a 23-year-old musician, had recently died of a freak cancer, and I was in a fragile state. Between the heat, spiked juice and the emotional intensity of the group singing that Pete always inspired, I felt faint. I got up and headed fast for shade on shaky legs--and literally fell into my father’s lap. He had Parkinson’s disease, and it was the first time I completely experienced the uncontrollable tremor that he incessantly suffered.

When I moved to an Israeli-Palestinian village during the war in Lebanon in 1982 as part of a program called Interns for Peace, it seemed natural to invite Pete to perform. He wrote back saying he couldn’t come, but wished me well, signing the postcard with his signature banjo drawing. I returned to the States in 1990, and over the next decade sought Pete out when he would come to the Bay Area. I re-introduced myself at a children’s songwriting network conference and we spent about an hour together, mostly me listening to his mesmerizing stories. . . about everything.  What stands out about that particular conversation was his riveting description of the history of Greenwich Village. 

By 1998, I had joined Ursula Sherman as the co-chair of the Berkeley-based Jewish Music Festival. Our approach towards music as a way to inspire, teach and connect, as much as entertain came directly from Pete. Ursula is gone now, so I can only speak for myself to say that his synthesis of universalist values deeply rooted in local identity and action epitomizes my way of being Jewish in this world.

A few years ago, on a cold winter day, I finally visited Pete at his home near the small town of Beacon, New York. Over forty years, Pete and Toshi raised a family there and spurred the drive to clean up the nearby Hudson River. As he showed me around, I asked him how he knew how to build a house. He said he learned from a book he took out of the New York Public Library. The cabin now looked to be for guests, and they lived next door in a comfortable house overlooking the river. Toshi had a soup on the stove, and their daughter Tinya and her friend joined us for lunch. I contributed some fancy jams I had bought at Grand Central Station. 

The train had traveled along the river, passing Sing Sing prison where the Rosenbergs were executed in 1953. It also went by the small town of Peekskill where four years before that, Pete and others had performed at a Paul Robeson concert. After the event, the artists and concertgoers had been forced by the local police to drive along a narrow road and run a gauntlet of rock-throwing right-wing thugs. Pete was in the driver’s seat, with Toshi and two young kids. According to Wikipedia, Woody Guthrie and Lee Hays were also in the car. Guthrie pinned a shirt to the inside of the window to stop it shattering. "Wouldn't you know it, Woody pinned up a red shirt," Hays was to remember.[21] - cite_note-22
Pete and I talked about Peekskill, and he showed me a rock from the incident that he embedded into the stone chimney of the cabin. The fact that he chose to build it and live in the same rural area at the height of the region’s Cold War Red Scare seems amazing to me now. We also talked about Jewish music and the Jewish Music Festival. He showed me and sang a Chanukah song that he had either written or arranged and that I think he was singing with a local chorus.  He reminisced about the late Ruth Rubin, the Yiddish folklorist, and still clearly felt her loss when he spoke of the death, decades ago, of her only child. He and Toshi patiently watched a segment of the Ark Project that I showed them on my laptop that the Jewish Music Festival had commissioned. I asked him about Rashid Hussein, a Palestinian Israeli poet from a village near where I used to live in Israel, and whom Pete had known and recorded with in the Sixties.

I played with their cat, Mochi(?) who they had found in a woodpile, perused the gallery of photos filled with people I knew vicariously – like Moe Asch, and admired the picture of him and Toshi dressed to the hilt for one of his many awards. Pete in a tuxedo was really quite a sight. I had a small tape recorder, and Pete leaned into it as we sat at the table, making sure that it got everything he had to say. He was a teacher, after all.
When Toshi died in July just short of their seventieth anniversary, I had the feeling that he would leave us sometime this year.  But I didn’t know that I would hear the news an hour after I had completed a lecture at Jagiellonian University on the American klezmer revival and its roots in the folk music revival. I had just finished introducing Polish students to the magic of Pete getting an audience to sing Jacob’s Ladder, and had joined my fellow Fulbrighters for a tour of Schindler’s factory, now a museum of the Nazi occupation of Krakow. I was telling a friend how great it was to share Pete with new people.  He told me the news. Yesterday, while researching Jewish music in Poland, I came across a Polish version of Where Have All the Flowers Gone by a singer who also sang Yiddish songs in the Communist era when they weren’t a popular choice of repertoire.
As the tributes, articles and accolades pour in, one initiative really stands out for me. Pete was, above all, a bridge builder. I signed the petition "New York Governor AndrewCuomo: Name the new Tappan Zee Bridge after Pete Seeger." on Will you sign it too?

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