Remembering Pete Seeger
It was chance. Or perhaps it was meant to be. I’ve happened to be in the right place at the right time more than a few times in my life. While working a summer job doing computer work in 1980 (yes, we had computers back then), I was invited to go to Beacon, NY for a weekend to sail on a sloop named after folk legend Woody Guthrie. I think the rest of what the folks who invited me told me about the trip didn’t register. We were going to camp in the state forest and sail. That was enough for me. I was up for camping, and was certainly up for any opportunity to sail.
As it turned out, Pete Seeger was the captain that day, and the area of forest where we camped was adjacent to his property, high on the hillside overlooking the Hudson River and Storm King Mountain. When the other folks I’d arrived with decided to head back to NYC early, Pete whispered in my ear, “You’re welcome to stay.” He figured out that while I’d come up with these other folks, I really didn’t know them. It was the sailing that brought me to Beacon.
We sailed another day that weekend. Toshi kept telling Pete to sit down and to tell me what to do instead. Pete had just had hernia surgery and she didn’t want him to damage the stitches. I’d never sailed a Hudson River Sloop, but was an experienced sailor. And so I ran back and forth working the topping lifts. On this type of sailboat, one line needs to be tightened and another loosened each time the ship comes about. The topping lifts keep the weight of the boom from flatting the sail. Each time the boat tacks, the windward lift is snugged and tied off, and then the leeward lift is let fly so that it’s not keeping the sail from filling.
Pete drove me to the train at the end of the weekend, and before I boarded the Budd car back to the city, he told me the phone number and invited me to visit any time. For the next three years, I did visit often. I came up to help with festivals, or to work on the Woody, or another sloop being built, the Sojourner Truth, or one time to help Toshi prepare the ingredients for her stone soup before the Clearwater Revival.
I’d receive an occasional phone call asking if I might come to Beacon and help with one thing or another. Pete would tell stories as we drove places or worked on a boat, and each one really was a lesson. I learned a great deal that helped shape who I am today.
By chance, I was there when a young troubadour named Larry Long came to visit. He’s from Minneapolis and had been riding across the country with midwestern farmers who drove their tractors all the way to Washington, DC, and drove them around the Mall. Larry was the folk singer on that ride. I count Larry’s songwriting as one of my important influences now that I have become a songwriter. In 1982, I crewed on Clearwater. On the second day, none other than Larry came walking down Piermont Pier to join us for a week on board.
In 1981, I was working at the Clearwater Revival. I’d helped building stages and doing just about anything else I could to help. I was a litter picker, a job Pete always exalted as one of the most important. I’d grown up listening to Pete Seeger and The Weavers on records. At that festival, I finally saw the Weavers live. It was their last performance together, as Lee Hayes passed away a few months later. Lee was wheelchair bound, but full of spirit and was wonderful to the volunteers.
Toward the summer of 1982, my schedule at school no longer permitted me trips down the Hudson often. On one of my last visits, Pete and Toshi gave me a cookbook that explained the basics of whole grain baking. That helped fuel a life-long passion for baking healthy bread, something I do at least weekly to this day.
Unlike most of my friends who know or admire Pete, I really came to know him through sailing and environmental interests, spending time with the Clearwater movement and the sloop club in Beacon. All these years later, I think back fondly on the days spent at Pete & Toshi’s house, learning from both of them about gardening, cooking, the environment, social justice and friendship. I learned and observed that giving of oneself helps others, and heals yourself at the same time.
Perhaps the biggest lesson learned is one I try to carry on. Building community strengthens us all. When we work together to accomplish a goal no one of us could do alone, we all benefit. When we host an open mike, a songwriter series, run sound for others, or just reach out to newcomers to a group we’re a part of, I think of Pete. I remember the gleam in his eye when he saw folks take on that role themselves and pay it forward.
So in the end, our friend Pete has sailed on down the river for the final time. But what he has left us is immeasurable. He’s left us music, and that’s a part of it, but he also left us with purpose. With the tools to build community and effect change. With a great sense of pride when we help others. It’s our turn to lead the crowds in song.