It’s always darkest before the dawn:
The Irrepressible and Irreplaceable Pete Seeger
I never really knew Pete Seeger, but he taught me how to play the banjo.
As a young amateur musician in junior high school in the early 1960s, just learning to play guitar and banjo and to sing folksongs, I certainly felt like I I knew him, going through the instructions in the manual he and his life companion Toshi copied and stapled together themselves. His high tenor renditions of wonderful old folk tunes that I’d never heard before, and his renditions of the powerful political songs of people like Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill--people I'd never heard of--didn’t just broaden my musical sensibilities, but actually shaped me politically more than I could have possibly realized at the time.
A few years later, as I got old enough to have to confront the draft, and to think about the horrors of the US war on the people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and as I began to attend major anti-war demonstrations, there was always Pete there, banjo gripped by the neck, lanky in his bluejeans, climbing up on the stage to sing one anti-war anthem after another.
He never got old. I remember going to hear him back in the late 1970s at a SRO concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall, and just being amazed at the range of ages in the audience, from little toddlers sitting on their parents’ shoulders in the standees area at the back of the hall to ancient-looking people sitting in the seats, craning to hear through aging ears.
But of course he did get old, finally even losing his singing voice. At one point, back in the mid-1980s during the Reagan administration years when I was living in New York, there was a plan to base the refurbished WWII battleship Iowa on Staten Island at the mouth of the Hudson River. The ship by 1984 had been retrofitted with nuclear-capable cruise missiles, and was going to be a terrible blot on the whole region if it were based there. Of course, it was also going to be sitting in the very river that Pete had decided to devote his latter years trying to clean up from all the toxic PCBs and other pollutants that corporations like GE had been dumping into it like their personal sewer for decades.
There was a big movement developing to oppose the Iowa basing plan, and so I wrote a song to go with it: “No More Iowas in our Bay.” I sang it at an anti-Iowa homeport rally held at the eastern base of the Verrazano Bridge, and it received a good response. Then, thinking I should try to get it more attention, I sent the words and a cassette recording I had made of myself performing the tune, to Pete at his home upstream in Beacon, NY.
I got a note back from him a few weeks later. “Thanks for your song Dave,” he wrote. “It’s a good one. Unfortunately, at my age , I’m not learning new lyrics as easily anymore, so I can’t promise to learn it. Why don’t you send it on to Charlie King?” (He would have been in his mid-60s by then -- my age today! -- and I can appreciate now what he was talking about!)
He signed the note with his characteristic signature: Pete, ending with a clever, quick sketch of his long-necked 5-string banjo that was a continuation of the line extending from the letter “e” at the end of his name.