So long, it’s been good to know ya . . . in memory of Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, Poughkeepsie Day School, 2010 (Photograph by Josie Holford)

Pete Seeger, Poughkeepsie Day School, 2010 (Photograph by Josie Holford)

When the Committee asked me about that song [Wasn’t That A Time], I said, “Well, that’s a good song, and I know it. I’ll sing it for you”.

“No. We don’t want to hear it. We want to know did you sing it on such and such a place and date?”

I said, “I would be glad to sing any song I ever sang. But as to where I’ve sung them, I think that’s no business of this Committee. I’ve got a right to sing these songs. I’ve got a right to sing them anywhere.”

Pete Seeger

I was headed to Poughkeepsie Station this morning when I got the news. Pete Seeger had died the night before. He was a neighbor, in a way—Beacon, where he lived, isn’t so far from us, and he came up the Hudson River from time to time, sometimes on his on Clearwater Sloop and to Poughkeepsie Day School in 2010 . “But this was far from his first visit to PDS.”

As reported in the Poughkeepsie Journal of January 12th 1949, he came to play folk music  for  the fourth, fifth and sixth grades in a concert open to the public. . . . That 1949 concert was a benefit for Peoples Songs Inc., an organization he had co-founded in 1945 with the belief that folk music could be an effective force for social change.

I only met him once, and it was a neighborly sort of thing. I was waiting for a train at Poughkeepsie Station, headed down to New York City, just like I was today. He was with his wife, Toshi. She was sitting on a bench, and he was standing. He came up to me and struck up a conversation. He didn’t know me, of course, and though I knew who he was, as a well-trained New Yorker, I didn’t let on. He pointed out things about the station renovation he thought could have been done better, things that showed what went into it, about its history, about the working people who’d made it all happen, from the beginning.

Pete Seeger carried on in the lineage of Woody Guthrie. He had a long arc of life, and he got the big things right all the way through, including making sure all the lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land got sung that inauguration day not so long ago.

Like these:

A great high wall there tried to stop me
A great big sign there said: ‘Private Property’
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing.
That sign was made for you and me.

He never gave up, and he never gave in. He always had his banjo or his guitar, and he always had a tune.

Like these:

So long, Pete. It’s been good to know ya.

Pete Seeger entertaining Eleanor Roosevelt (center), honored guest at a racially integrated Valentine's Day party marking the opening of a Canteen of the United Federal Labor, CIO, in then-segregated Washington, D.C. Photographed by Joseph Horne for the Office of War Information, 1944.

Pete Seeger entertaining Eleanor Roosevelt (center), honored guest at a racially integrated Valentine’s Day party marking the opening of a Canteen of the United Federal Labor, CIO, in then-segregated Washington, D.C. Photographed by Joseph Horne for the Office of War Information, 1944.

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The photograph at the head of the post was taken at Poughkeepsie Day School in 2010. The other photograph may be found here. The quotations are from the sources linked in the post.

24 thoughts on “So long, it’s been good to know ya . . . in memory of Pete Seeger

  1. Susan Scheid Post author

    Hey, Ray, so nice to see you here, and with such kind words. As for the work of art, well, it’s pretty hard to miss when we’re talking about Pete Seeger!

  2. wanderer

    Did he not start a campaign to clean up the Hudson?

    OK – I’ll raise it. I liked his thoughts on Communism – something along the lines that the USSR no more reflects the ideals of Communism than the Churches that of Christianity. I had a dear friend in California who was a card-carrying Commie until, she said, she realised that Communism only worked in Heaven, in which she believed. (And that wouldn’t be a hierarchical heaven of which the Churches preach.)

    And the concept of a well-trained New Yorker gives pause for thought, in the nicest way.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      wanderer: He did indeed, and we owe him a lot. “In 1966, in despair over the pollution of his beloved Hudson River, Seeger announced plans to “build a boat to save the river.” That’s the Clearwater Sloop I refer to in the post. More about the organization he founded is here: http://www.clearwater.org/about/the-clearwater-story/. I like your quote from him, too. As many did at that time, he embraced the ideal, but came to recognize it had nothing to do with the “facts on the ground.”

      As for the “New Yorker” approach, on the one hand, I do think it’s a form of politeness, particularly in the big city where folks are just trying to go about their days. I regretted not taking the chance to let him know how much he mattered, but felt somehow he wouldn’t have wanted the conversation to be about him, but rather about what mattered to him. It was a gift to have that one small encounter, and I won’t forget it.

  3. David N

    Another life well lived – he was so obviously a Mensch. I thought I knew little about him but recognised so many of the songs played yesterday. Thanks for this – more dreams about the Hudson being such a good place; because of you, I think of it a lot.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I knew he lived in Beacon, but I didn’t learn this until I read the New York Times obituary: “Mr. Seeger invested $1,700 in 17 acres of land overlooking the Hudson River in Beacon, N.Y., and began building a log cabin there in the late 1940s. (He lived in Beacon for the rest of his life.)” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/29/arts/music/pete-seeger-songwriter-and-champion-of-folk-music-dies-at-94.html The Hudson River is his river in a very special way, and I was grateful to be on the train and able to look out on it so shortly after learning that he’d died the night before. (By the way, that photograph at the head of the post was taken by the Edu-Mate–it’s her school he visited in 2010 and for the first time in 1949.)

      1. David N

        That’s some school the Edu-mate heads. How I’d love to know more about it. I presume it’s the same where Dylan Mattingly and Contemporaneous tried out a collective performance of Terry Riley’s In C? It’s a good reminder that America, for all that we mock about it over here, is a beacon of education. And all the best translations of European literature I’ve bought recently have been published in the States and aren’t available in editions here.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: Good memory! Yes, Contemporaneous did a wonderful collective performance of In C at the school. PDS is a magical place, though Josie can speak more intelligently on that, not to mention on the state of education in the US overall, about which I believe she’d say, though more eloquently, that, while there are many points of light (PDS is one such), the prescriptions endorsed by many, particularly for public education (as the term is used over here), are woefully backward-looking. As one example, I just pulled this video from Josie’s “Head of School” blog, created by Erica Enriquez, who at the time was a 2nd year PDS high school student: http://www.josieholford.com/thinking-outside-the-bubble/. The first part of the video, in the frame of a class at PDS, discusses Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. At about 9 minutes, she examines standardized testing (not applicable or used at PDS), including conversations with teachers and students in the public school system. It’s, well, let’s just say, illuminating. The end, starting at about 27 minutes, is very affecting. (She does a wonderful job of selecting music to accompany the film, I think.)

          PS: I am tardy on responding to your follow-up comment on the earlier post, but now have, and the long and short of it is I want to take that course!!

  4. The Solitary Walker

    Thanks for this tribute, Susan, and for recalling your own brief encounter with the great man. His energy, unwavering commitment and authenticity were exemplary; and his influence, along with Woody’s, spread far and wide, from Dylan and Baez right up to the present day and the new-generation folk revivalists. There’s a strong British connection here too, of course, as his sister Peggy married one of our finest and most politically aware folk singers, Ewan MacColl.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      SW: It’s wonderful to learn of this cross-Atlantic connection, and heartening to look “down the lineage” and know that it continues today. Speaking of the lineage, of course it extends back as well. Pete Singer told a wonderful story of the history of We Shall Overcome here: http://youtu.be/N-FmQEFFFko (Indeed, as I think of it, and I can almost hear Pete Seeger looking over my shoulder to correct me, I’ve changed the reference to Woody a bit–as well as providing a link I just spotted in which Pete Seeger talks about him.)

  5. Mark Kerstetter

    His spirit was so big that in some way he touched all of us, even those of us who never followed his career. I have fond memories of the song ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ from when I was a kid. It was on an anthology of my mother’s. A great man.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Yes, it wasn’t necessary to follow him–he was simply there, a guiding spirit. And for you, in return, here’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone sung by another in the lineage, Joan Baez, in honor of Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday:

  6. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Dear Sue,
    thank you for sharing these memories and your reverence for Pete Seeger. He has lived a full and upright life – and I especially love the last photograph with Eleanore Roosevelt (I often find astonishing & adorable quotes from her).

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: Isn’t that a wonderful photograph? I was so happy to run across it, and of course the context offers a bit of US history that’s important not to forget. ER must have been the most quotable first lady, don’t you think?

  7. friko

    Now there’s one man who is not on that ‘Last Train To Nuremburg’.

    I came to him relatively late in my middle years, when I climbed the barricades myself, but I’ve loved him ever since.

  8. Curt Barnes

    A beautiful tribute, Susan. I learned from Huffington Post that Seeger made only one video in his lifetime, “Forever Young,” in which he talks rather than sings, being in his 90’s, I guess, with his voice mostly gone. But unsurprisingly, it went viral even before he died, and it’s beautifully made:


  9. Curt Barnes

    If I can add: One of Pete’s most famous compositions was translated into German and made into a huge hit there by none other than Marlene Dietrich (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone? became “Sag Mir Wo die Blumen Sind”); the poignancy of that song in German, for Germans, is almost palpable. Several YouTube videos brought home its ironies, among them:



    And then Joan Baez sang a German version, too! It was far from the only Pete Seeger song to circle the globe in different versions. “Turn, Turn, Turn” was another.

  10. shoreacres

    From what I’ve heard, most of the songs that have been referenced in tributes have been later songs, the ones covered by many other artists and sometimes not even recognized as Seeger’s by younger people.

    My first Seeger recording was of early folk songs – “Darling Cory”, “Little Boxes”, and “What Did You Learn in School Today?” I’ll never forget the expression on my dad’s face when he first heard “Which Side Are You On?” I understand now that it was ambivalence he was feeling. His father had been injured in a coal mine accident in Iowa. His best friend’s father also had worked in the mines. By the time I came along, Dad was in management at Maytag and Shelby was in management for Peabody Coal in Kentucky. The conflicts that were a part of their work tore both men apart.

    I still feel a good bit of ambivalence about labor and management issues, and Seeger’s music stirs them up. The unions were good, and necessary. Today, they have come close to achieving what my dad predicted: that they would become increasingly corrupt and fall of their own weight.

    Well, the older I get, the more convinced I become that a single lifetime isn’t enough to judge the currents moving through society. That’s why history’s so important – and people like Seeger, who somehow are able to navigate those currents and leave a chart for those who will follow.

    We need more Seegers, that’s for sure. But at least we have his music.

    http://youtu.be/GAN4wa8VFHk

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres:That “a single lifetime isn’t enough to judge the currents moving through society” is so important to bear in mind. Seeger was, as you note, a great model when it came to navigating the currents. He didn’t always get it right, but he knew how to make a course correction when it was needed. I remember well the Seeger songs you note–they were among the first I learned, as well. On the subject of unions, as one who spent many years workin’ for the union and witnessing its decline, I’d say this (in doing so, I do recognize the complications, which these few words can’t really serve): as with any institutions, they are prone to become ossified and lose sight of the purpose for which they were created. I do think, however, that those original purposes continue to be strongly relevant today–just think of the current and growing inequality in wealth–but many things, not least of which have been the sustained regulatory constraints, have conspired against their revival as a force for positive change.

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        shoreacres: You know what it is, in the “big picture”? (I am reminded of this with all the differing opinions coming in on how best to honor him vis-a-vis the petition I noted to Friko): Seeger believed in working collectively for the common good. Throughout his life, he never waivered in acting on that belief, and he made a difference for the better as a result. That’s hugely difficult to sustain, and few do.

  11. Steve Schwartzman

    Like shoreacres in the first comment, I feel ambivalent. You may recall that my father and his family came to the United States in the 1920s to be free from the oppression of Soviet communism. My grandmother was already around 40 years old, and she went to night school in New York to learn English, which she always spoke with a heavy Russian accent. I can still hear her saying to me once, late in her life (she lived to be over 90), about the United States: “It’s still the best country.”

    Then I think of the years after World War II. Yes, McCarthy could be extreme at times, and he was a demagogue, but the truth remains that there were Soviet spies in the American government, and they did manage to steal the secrets for making an atom (and later hydrogen) bomb. I’ve often had the fantasy that in the late 1940s, when America had atomic weapons and the Soviet Union didn’t, we could have forced the Communists to get out of all the countries they’d enslaved in eastern Europe. Think of the millions of people who suffered and died from 1945 through 1990 under Communist tyranny in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, etc. Did those people take any comfort in hearing songs sung by Soviet sympathizers in the United States?

    Less controversially, and without ambivalence, I’m glad Pete Seeger was a force in getting the Hudson River cleaned up.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: I do know what you mean. This is not meant to excuse it, but a lot of good people in the West got caught up in belief in an ideal at the time, without recognizing the reality. As wanderer notes, Seeger did ultimately come to recognize this. He ended his affiliation a long time ago, though I can well understand ongoing ambivalence, even so.

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