Thank you, Pete Seeger

From the great banjo player, Tony Trischka, words to those of us on the front lines of environmental protection, and  a remembrance of the legendary Pete Seeger. Words for all of us to remember as we end this week of sorrow at the loss of one of the legends of the 20th century peace and environmental movement. Carry it on.

“Guard against getting too discouraged because winning the big battles seems so far off and so difficult.  Pick some little struggles.  Here, on the waterfront of my hometown, we’ve been teaching sailing and pulling up weeds and cooking food and singing songs.

These are very trivial things, but little victories give us the courage to keep on struggling to win some bigger victories later on.”

Pete Seeger, In His Own Words

I grew up with Pete’s banjo ringing in my ears. My parents were on the left side of things in the fifties and we listened to Weavers albums, Pete’s children’s records on Folkways, and Talking Union by the Almanac Singers.

When I first got serious about playing the banjo around the age of 14, I picked up Pete’s banjo book, which came out in the late 40s.  It was the first banjo instruction book of the modern era, and provided me, and countless others, with lots of early inspiration.  Around that time, I wrote a letter addressed to “Pete Seeger, Beacon, NY” (I didn’t have the address….kind of like writing to Santa Claus, North Pole).  It went something like this: “You’re the greatest banjo player in the entire universe.” Two weeks later, I received a post card from Pete saying, “Dear Tony, Music’s not like a horse race.  There’s no such thing as best, but I’m glad you like my music.” And he signed his name and drew a little banjo.  The fact that he would take the time to respond to a kid like me was huge.

Music poured out of Pete at the drop of a hat.  About twenty years ago, Pete and I were appearing separately at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in Canada. Boarding the bus at the hotel to head out to the airport, I saw Pete sitting across from the bus driver.  There were no other passengers. I sat down just behind Pete, who turned to me and said, “You know, Tony, audiences these days don’t know how to sing bass parts to songs. I’ll show you what I mean. Do you know the words to ‘Study War No More’?” I said that I did, and began to sing the melody. Almost immediately, Pete chimed in on the low harmony part as we duetted our way to the airport. Once we arrived, we found ourselves in unmoving, excruciatingly long custom lines. Most folks were in business attire, but there were we were, with our jeans and banjos. At some point, I looked over at Pete in the adjacent line. He was hunched over his banjo case. He proceeded to unlatch it and throw the banjo over his shoulder. As he stood up and started to play, his uncomprehending neighbors began to look ill at ease. Not wishing to let an opportunity like this escape me, I took out my own banjo and joined in. We picked our way to the front of the line.

Whether through small or large gestures, Pete demonstrated an acute respect for the environment.  Once, not too long ago, I was saying goodbye to Pete after a recording session in upstate New York. As he was about to be driven away, he spied something in the tall grass about 30 feet from the car. He got out, walked into the grass and pulled out a broken headlight. Pete got back in the car, with the headlight sitting in his lap.  I leaned in and asked if I could take care of it for him.  He said, “As long as you dispose of it properly.”

Though he would work to change things on a local level, Pete’s towering moral authority had a profound national and international effect. His steadfast refusal to bow to the passage of time or political expediency bequeathed to him an iconic status.  This was a position that he would forever eschew. Pete was too busy standing up to the McCarthyites, being a key player in the Civil Rights movement, giving voice to the opposition during the Vietnam War, composing or co-writing such powerful songs as “If I Had A Hammer”, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”, and “Where Have all the Flowers Gone.” And let’s not forget that by spearheading the move to clean up the Hudson River, and, in the last few years, standing up against fracking, Pete served as a valiant solider in the fight to save our environment.

And going back to the banjo….. when most people think of Pete’s playing, they picture him, head raised,  strumming the five-string as a back-up for his singing.  Though that style may seem simple, there is an art to filling space in that way, while still leaving room for the “power of song.”  Pete’s playing was influenced by jazz, old time, bluegrass, flamenco, calypso….you name it.  At times he would harness these techniques for his own tunes – just listen to the eponymous song from his Goofing Off Suite (supposedly written while he swung in a hammock as Toshi and the kids tarred the driveway). And then there’s his off-handed tour-de-force, Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies”, from that same album.  Pete’s technical command was astounding.  He was light years ahead of his time.

I visited Pete last week at his home in Beacon.   Though frail, he spent part of the afternoon reciting Shakespeare’s 65th sonnet from memory.  This was followed by a recitation of the Gettysburg Address.  Pete then instructed us on the best way to position the logs in his wood stove (which, incidentally, he’d designed himself many years before).

At this point, Pete picked up his banjo and, fingers wisping the strings, sang one song,:

“Some say that humankind won’t long endure

But what makes them so doggone sure?

I know that you who hear my singing

Could make those freedom bells go ringing

I know that you who hear my singing

Could make those freedom bells go ringing

And so keep on while we live

Until we have no, no more to give

And when these fingers can strum no longer

Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger

And when these fingers can strum no longer

Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger”

From “Quite Early Morning”

Words and music by Pete Seeger

2 Responses

  1. Al – This is a beautiful tribute. I cried all the way through it from a deep combination of sorrow, hope, loss and passion. Thank you.

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