It seemed like Pete would live forever, unlike his pal Woody Guthrie who passed away at age 55 about a mile from where Suzanne and I make our home. Pete can now rejoin his beloved Toshi, just the same way that Johnny Cash soon followed June Carter to that great hootenanny in heaven.
Suzanne told me the news about an hour ago and I wanted to put in my two-cents worth of insight into Pete's long career before I get overwhelmed with all the celebrity tributes and find myself unable to say anything original. Of course, I will read every article and probably attend more than one memorial concert.
So here are the two points about Pete's career that are especially relevant to musicians trying to build their career in 2014:
• Pete was, first and foremost, an extremely skilled entertainer and communicator and realized that nobody would listen to his calls for political activism unless they were part of an engaging performance.
• Early on, Pete experienced the power of celebrity to make or break a person. He cleverly manipulated his celebrity status to further causes he believed and refused to let it turn him into someone he didn't want to be.
Freighting pop music with overt political content is risky business. The resulting songs can seem extremely relevant one day, but inevitably become like yesterday's newspaper. I won't name names here, but I'm sure all of you can remember being harangued by some performer onstage pleading with you to save the whales, support Tibet, free some political prisoner, etc. Pete's genius helped us see the deeper meaning in seemingly familiar songs like "On Top of Old Smoky," which people will still be singing long after we've forgotten "Give Peace A Chance" or "The Times They Are A-Changing."
Pete did a lot of benefit performances for various causes and you would hear lots of speeches and calls to activism from the sponsors or from Pete himself. But you would also hear old songs, new songs, Pete's "hit" songs, serious songs, silly songs and often the sound of the audience's singing would often be louder than Pete and his banjo. Pete made you feel like he was not really the center of attention and that it was the audience that really mattered. So you left the show feeling engaged, educated and entertained. Pete made it all seem so effortless and natural. You would think anyone could pull it off, until you see someone else attempt it and fail miserably. Someone like me, for instance!
It is hard to believe that The Weavers had a huge hit record in 1950 with Goodnight Irene.
Pete was one of four strong personalities that made up the group, which was known for their political consciousness. Their newfound celebrity status compelled them to tone down the political rhetoric, in order to maintain their connection with mainstream America. Nevertheless, Pete and fellow Weaver Lee Hays were targeted as Communists in the 1950s, which effectively ended the Weavers' show business success and put them on the "Blacklist" of entertainers that were not allowed to work. Pete's testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 is a courageous refusal to legitimize the anti-Communist hysteria of the era.
But the new interest in folk music that began in the late 1950s revived his career and landed Pete a contract with Columbia records in the 1960s. Tommy Smothers effectively lobbied CBS-TV to give Pete a guest spot on the controversial Smother Brothers Comedy Hour, where Pete sang a pointed anti-Vietnam war song, which compared President Johnson a "big fool."
All this combined to make Pete the elder statesman of the American Folk Song revival and, therefore, a celebrity once again. Did he buy a house in Malibu? Did he become an egomaniac? Did he show up in the tabloids?
No, he got a bunch of people to build a boat. Not another rich man's toy but a working replica of the kind of boat that carried on commerce on his beloved Hudson river in the 19th century. He bristled at the suggestion that it was "Pete's boat" or that the organization formed to maintain it and use it to educate and further environmental causes was some kind of vanity project. But he fully utilized the power of his reputation to raise money and build the organization in a way that would allow it to thrive without him.
Pete was the most accessible celebrity you could imagine. Every folksinger in the world would eventually beat a path to his door, to the sloop Clearwater or to the Beacon Sloop Club. He'd be there in his stocking cap and work clothes, and before you could pay your respects he'd put you to work making baggywrinkles (you can look it up yourself).
That's how Suzanne and I got to spend some time around Pete. We ended up being active in the New York City Friends of Clearwater for a few years in the 1970s, but never pulled the celebrity-worship thing when we saw Pete and were intensely embarrassed by anyone who did. The one time we played music with him in a large group, Pete gently urged me to lay off the banjo for a few verses. Given my limited abilities at the time, it was solid advice.
If fact, the whole concept of a celebrity endorsement from Pete Seeger is pretty laughable. It was hardly an exclusive club! (how about this one: Glenn Manion was once told by Pete Seeger: "How about giving the banjo a rest for a while?") Pete was just a nice guy who would find something supportive to say about any musician who asked for help. There must be tens of thousands who claim to have "performed with Pete Seeger."
One musician who was unabashed in his worship of Pete was Harry Chapin. My old friend Ruth Janks, who got me started as a folksinger back in Syracuse, claims to have introduced them. So what did Harry do? He decided to use his celebrity status to address a cause dear to him: world hunger. Sadly, Harry did not live long enough to see his organization grow but many years later WhyHunger is a thriving and influential force in the battle against hunger in America and elsewhere. I'm sure Pete and Harry will talk about it at that hootenanny upstairs.
So I would strongly recommend that you not be put off by the torrent of tribute that is on its way. Pete Seeger was a true American original and there are many valuable career and life lessons you will gain from studying his ups and downs: how you can maintain humility even when you are worshipped by everyone from Bono to Bruce Springsteen; the price you sometimes pay to maintain your personal integrity in the face of career pressures; how important it is to not let your fame and fortune isolate you from regular people.
I could go on and on. I'll let Pete have the final word.