Published on Friday, April 29, 2005 by The Nation
Pete Seeger Is 86 by Studs Terkel
A nationwide festival of tributes to the balladeer and songleader of us all, Pete Seeger, will be held on and around his 86th birthday, on May 3 (for information see www.seegerfest.com). We asked Studs Terkel, who turns 93 on May 16 (hey, Happy Birthday, Studs!), to reminisce about his young friend. As Pete and The Weavers used to sing: "Tzena, Tzena, join the celebration./There'll be people there from every nation./Dawn will find us dancing in the sunlight,/Dancing in the village square. Some years ago, DownBeat, the jazz journal, referred to Pete Seeger as "America's tuning fork."
Along with Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Alan Lomax, he was the balladeer who stirred up the American folk-song revival in the late 1940s and early 1950s. His influence among the young was so pervasive that it brought forth this thought: When you see a kid with Adam's apple wildly bobbing and banjo held chest-high, you know that Pete Seeger, like Kilroy, was there. Pete and his wife, Toshi, live in a house he built in Beacon, New York, an upstate town along the Hudson River. His later years have been devoted to the Clearwater, as a schooner and an idea--cleaning up the Hudson River, which had through the years become polluted, "dangerous to all living things." He was 82 when he started the river project. It is hard to think of Pete Seeger as an elderly gaffer, because the boy in him, the light, remains undimmed.
It was sixty-five years ago I first ran into him. He and three of his colleagues, calling themselves the Almanac Singers, were on a cross-country jalopy tour singing and creating songs for the industrial unions aborning. The CIO had begun, and how could there be labor rallies without songs? It was in the true American tradition, like the Hutchinsons, a family of singing abolitionists during the Civil War. Some of the most heartbreaking music of that fratricidal conflict was theirs. That night when I first encountered the four wandering minstrels was a cold Chicago beauty. At 2 in the morning, my wife heard the doorbell ring. I was away rehearsing the first play in which I had ever appeared. It was Waiting for Lefty, of course. There, at the door, were the four of them. The first was a bantam--freckled, red-haired and elfin. He handed my wife a note saying: "These are good fellas. Put them up for the night." Putting them up was a rough assignment, even for a Depression-era social worker, what with the only spare bunk being a Murphy bed that sprang from the wall. Freckles announced himself as Woody Guthrie. The second was an Ozark mountain man named Lee Hayes. The third was a writer, Millard Lampell. The fourth, somewhat diffident, more in the background, was a slim-jim of 20 or so, fretting around with his banjo. He was Pete Seeger. Since then, Woody has died. So has Lee Hayes. So has Millard Lampell. Only Pete breathes and sings, mesmerizing audiences, whether they be Democrats, lefties, vegans or even a sprinkling of Republicans.
For sixty-five years, he has held forth continuously through periods known more for their bleakness than for their hope: the cold war, the witchhunt, the civil rights and civil liberties battles. Pete has been in all of them. Wherever he was asked, when the need was the greatest, he, like Kilroy, was there. And still is. Though his voice is somewhat shot, he holds forth on that stage. Whether it be a concert hall, a gathering in the park, a street demonstration, any area is a battleground for human rights. That is why describing him as an 86-year-old gaffer is not quite true. The calendar often deceives. This is a sparkling case in point. Of course, he's been blacklisted so many times he probably holds the dubious record, with the possible exception of Paul Robeson, who was often his partner in crime. Before we hoist one for Pete, let's also remember that he's one of the best choirmasters in the country. He may not have the technique of Robert Shaw, but the result is just as explosive. Imagine an audience of thousands as Pete sings, say, "Wimoweh." As Pete waves his arms gently, the audience reacts as a professional choir might. I've seen a wizened little man, who obviously is somebody's bookkeeper, at the command of Pete become a basso profundo, reaching two octaves lower than Chaliapin. This is the nature of Pete Seeger, who reaches out toward the further shores more effectively and more exhilaratedly than anyone I've ever run into. Hail Pete, at 86, still the boy with that touch of hope in the midst of bleakness. There ain't no one like him.
Studs Terkel's most recent book is Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (New Press).