The country and the world marked Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday on May 3 with a well- deserved bash in Madison Square Garden, and many local parties, to pay tribute to a beautiful human being. In his later years Pete has been recognized as an icon of peace, justice, the environment and the powerless. Because I have had a long association with him beginning in the late 1960s, and particularly during the 1970s, I was asked to make some remarks at our local event, at Featherstone on Sunday. Here’s some of what I said.
Ask anyone who knows Pete, even from afar, what his charisma, his magic, is all about, and I think the answer will go something like this: Pete touches peoples’ souls with music and storytelling while others try to persuade with anger and demagoguery. His genius is his ability to captivate us with his soaring musical talent and gentle intellect, while keeping us focused on what’s really important. He never disguises nor misses an opportunity to repeat his consistent message of peace, racial equality and social justice.
Those of us of a certain age remember his controversial past, and how polarizing a figure he was during the Cold War. Here is one of my favorite Pete memories, which happened just as the long dismal shadow of discredited McCarthyism was losing its potency, and opposition to the Viet Nam War was about to divide the country anew.
It was the fall of 1966. Pete was still blacklisted from television, radio and print media for his run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era. He was just beginning to appear on college campuses, and in small venues around the country. Some students, at the high school where I was teaching at the time, in the suburbs north of New York city, asked Pete if he would do a benefit concert for the American Field Service (a foreign student exchange program).
Pete readily agreed, said he would do it for free. The school board, to their credit, gave permission to use the high school auditorium for a public night concert. The right-wingers in the area, and they were not to be ignored, disagreed with the school board’s decision, and staged a vitriolic campaign of innuendo, vilification and hate-mongering, the likes of which I had never, in my innocent 26 years, ever witnessed. It was McCarthyism all over again, only worse because the threats of violence were all but explicit.
When the school board courageously twice refused to reverse its decision, the pitchfork and torch mob sought, as a last resort, a court order to ban the concert. They lost. The battle had gone on for several months, and the community was now severely polarized. For the anti-communist right it was a showdown with one of their perennial targets. For the more liberal majority, it was an opportunity to support the school board, first amendment rights, and of course, Pete. The purpose of the concert became an afterthought.
The day of the concert, in early February 1967, was full-blown winter: snow, sleet, rain, ice, wind. The high school was sent home early so the building could be thoroughly searched and sealed. Threats circulated through the community that windshields would be smashed and tires slashed if anyone dared attend the concert, which was sold out. Close to 1,000 people had bought tickets, many of them having to travel long distances in that awful winter weather to attend.
Because of the thinly veiled threats of violence, Pete and Toshi were given a state police escort from their home, about 45 minutes to the north. They were wary, not to say frightened, because in their long experience the police were rarely on their side. A platoon of state police was stationed in an elementary school near the high school in case things got out of hand. Every entrance to the high school was guarded, as was the stage. The tension in the overcrowded auditorium was palpable. No one knew what was going to happen, and it seemed like almost anything could.
Pete, whom I met for the first time at the reception following the concert, stepped onto the stage, an oversized guard visible behind him. He carried his trademark banjo and 12-string guitar, and no one, embarrassingly, had introduced him. He was politely applauded. He betrayed no nervousness, and the standing-room-only crowd became funereal. What would he do? What would he say? The tension was gut wrenching.
Pete calmly did a little fine-tuning of his banjo, and then said quite cheerfully, “Ladies and gentlemen, seeing how much effort has gone into getting us all together tonight, I think it’s appropriate that we start with a familiar old English drinking song. Join me.”
Pete strummed and sang the opening notes of the Star Spangled Banner! The room erupted into thunderous applause, sprang to its feet, and sang the words as loudly as I’ve ever heard a crowd of that size sing anything. It was as if a giant boil had been lanced, all the tension and poison instantly vanishing. That was Pete’s magic, his way to remind us of what was important. For the next two hours he had the room enthralled, and there was no disruption. It was a truly memorable concert. No windshields were smashed or tires slashed. Concert-goers did find a handout frozen to their windshields warning of an imminent communist takeover, but the state police platoon was not needed, and everyone went home in the miserable weather smiling and feeling good. That was how I always felt after his concerts.
At the post-concert reception, Pete admitted to me he and Toshi were scared. He allowed that our concert posed as serious a situation as he had been in since the extremely violent Peekskill Riot (in a neighboring town) in 1949, where many of the same crowd that opposed our concert injured hundreds — men, women and children — after a concert he participated in at a nearby picnic ground. Some years later I heard him tell that whole story — he and his family were attacked by stone-throwing “patriots” — around a campfire to a small group of my former students, which was a history lesson none of them, nor I, have forgotten.
While Pete and I were talking, Toshi, Pete’s wife of over 60 years now, tried urgently to negotiate the state police out of another escort back to their home that night. She was upset by the whole idea that they needed police protection, but in fact they did. Ultimately a compromise was reached, and she accepted an escort, but only to the county line. Or that’s what she thought. Toshi is a force of nature, and a perfect compliment to Pete’s more pacific manner.
I have other stories about Pete. He once tried to teach me, unsuccessfully, to yodel while we were in a canoe. Another time Pete let my then 80-year-old father give him a music lesson on his button accordion, but I’ve used up my space. Another time.
So happy birthday, Pete. May you have many more. You have touched so many of us so unforgettably, and for that we love you.
Richard Knabel lives in West Tisbury and is a selectman in that town.