Written and photographed by John Torsiello • with contributed photographs
In these times of increasing intolerance for the different beliefs and lifestyles of individuals, and a turn toward violence to settle social and cultural differences, we could certainly use Pete Seeger.
But the singer-songwriter-activist is no longer with us, his voice and the hands that played the guitar and other instruments with such purity, silent after his death at the ripe age of 96 in early 2014. Yet, we still have Seeger’s music and words to inspire and comfort us, songs the intention of which was to help us live in harmony and respect and care for the land upon which we all depend.
Seeger was a quintessentially American singer-songwriter. His music was born of the earth and his desire was for a life lived in harmony with nature and his fellow human beings. He gained fame as a member of The Weavers, which had a string of hits until the group was blacklisted during the dark days of the McCarthy Era of the 1950s. However, once the American consciousness righted itself, the Weavers returned strong as voices of protest against war and in support of civil rights and environmental issues, the latter of which Seeger was most involved, especially, in his later years, seen in his love and concern for the Hudson River that rolled along near his home in New York State.
Seeger’s songs “Where Have All The Flowers Gone,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” (with lyrics adapted from the book of Ecclesiastes) are his best-known. He was also credited with being mostly responsible for the spiritual “We Shall Overcome,” which became an anthem for many causes, including the Civil Rights Movement.
A close friend of Seeger’s and seven-time Grammy winner, Paul Winter of the acclaimed and venerable Paul Winter Consort, sits near his rustic recording studio/barn in Litchfield on a sunny, mild day and talks about Seeger.
“I hadn’t thought about it until now, but yes, Pete’s music and voice could be valuable today in a time when I worry about the direction the country is taking toward intolerance and reaction. The events of 9/11 were a wakeup call and what happened in Orlando is another wakeup call. I fear for this country if certain people gain power, and Pete would be very concerned with what has taken place during the last year and a half.”
Seeger was a visitor to the peaceful home and sanctuary Winter maintains. The two men met some five decades ago at the Newport Jazz Festival and remained in communication and collaborated for many years. The men often saw one another at festivals and concerts, and Seeger visited Winter, whose “living” music has won him millions of fans.
“Pete was a master musician as well as a songwriter,” says the 76-year-old Winter, as his daughter’s two horses frolic in a nearby corral. “He had a fantastic voice and brought the 12-string guitar into prominence. He could play the banjo, yodel and he could play the flute. He was probably one of the greatest musicians we have known. He was a true American master.”
Winter was more than a friend to Seeger. He co-produced Seeger’s 1996 release, “Pete,” which won a Grammy. In June, what Winter calls a “Pete-Pak” was released. It contains a remastered “Pete,” with such songs as “Old Time Religion,” “Lay Down Your Burden,” “Well May the World Go,” and “I Can See a New Day.” The recording is partnered with a new “Pete Seeger at the Living Music Festival” DVD, featuring three videos of Seeger in performance.
The Living Music Festival took place at Mohawk Mountain Ski Area in Cornwall in 1982, and Winter engaged filmmaker Phil Garvin to record the event. The tapes sat around collecting dust for 33 years before they were sent to be restored in Kentucky and then at a studio in Connecticut, that was able to make the conversion from tape to high definition digital.
A second film is of a “Pete-nic” held at Winter’s farm in 1997, sort of a rollicking, old time musical gathering at which were some of choral singers who worked with Seeger on the “Pete” album.
A third short film made by Dan Hofmann captured a performance by Seeger at the age of 86 in Goshen in 2005. He sang at a banquet hosted by the Harriet Beecher Stowe Society to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the bloody Pettus Bridge March in Selma Alabama, in which Seeger and his wife, Toshi (the couple was married a remarkable 70 years), took part in for three days. Seeger appropriately sang his song “Take It From Dr. King” at the Goshen event.
Also included in the Pete-Pak are two booklets containing writings from Seeger and a biography of him along with a number of vintage photos. Winter also contributed an article, really a first-person account of the times he shared with Seeger from 1963 to the 1997 Grammy ceremony.
Pulling the Pete-Pak together was a labor of love for Winter. “I guess it is a way of saying thank you to Pete for everything he stood for and his inspiration though the years. I miss him, we all miss him. I would call him and he would always answer, `What’s up, Paul.’”
Winter tells a story about the two men’s discussion of one another’s music some 40 years ago. “We were chatting at a festival and Pete said to me, `It’s all about engaging the crowd and making them a part of your performance,’ which Pete always did with his sing-a-longs.”
“Well, ours is more chamber music where people are involved by listening. But, I kept thinking about how we could actively involve the audience. We were in Washington State and playing a song that had a wolf howl at the ending. So, I asked the audience to howl along with us, which they did quite loudly, with the lights off, and we still do it to this day when we play the song. I had finally figured out a way to directly involve the audience.”
Seeger was a man who lived by his convictions. In 1955, he was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was conducting what amounted to “witch hunts” against anyone suspected of being a Communist or having Communist leanings or associations, most times without any tangible evidence. Seeger refused to plead the Fifth Amendment (which would have asserted that his testimony might be self incriminating). He also refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate is First Amendment rights. His stance led to a 1957 indictment for contempt of Congress. For several years he had to tell the Federal government of his whereabouts anytime he left the Southern District of New York. He was convicted in a jury trial of contempt of Congress and sentenced to ten, one-year terms in jail to be served concurrently. However, in May of 1962, an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction
“To watch Pete before the committee is amazing, his show of calm strength and poise,” says Winter.
Many may not know that Seeger maintained a strong connection to Litchfield. He spent five years, from age 8 to 13, attending the Spring Hill Academy in Litchfield during the late 1920s and early 1930s, on the site where the Forman School is today. He speaks in the Living Music Festival film of his nostalgia for his boyhood years in Litchfield. He often visited friends, in addition to Winter, in Litchfield.
Winter hopes the Pete-Pak will be a “Pete Seeger primer” for younger generations who are not yet familiar with his music; and as a “grand reunion with Pete” for the people who grew up on Seeger and haven’t heard from him in years. “I wanted for a long time to produce this album, simply because I love Pete’s music; and by the term ‘music’ I mean to include his singing, his songs, his stories, his great instrumental playing, his passion, his humor, and his kindness. Like Bach, Pete is the summing-up of an entire era. He is a treasury of American music, and more than anyone I know, Pete gives voice to the soul of this country.”
Yes, and at a time when the country dearly needs a calming, reasoned, and loving voice to stem the rising tide of intolerance, bigotry, and violence.
The Pete-Pak is available at paulwinter.com.