Pete Seeger 1919 – 2014

Pete Seeger at Florida Music Festival in White Springs, FL,  May 1977I did a post on Pete Seeger titled Pete Seeger & Songs of My Life in 2010. In it, I wrote of the photos I had taken at the White Springs Florida Folk Festival, “He just turned 91, so I’d better have them ready for an obit. I hope it’s later, not sooner, though.” I invite you to revisit those photos.

I woke up this morning at 5:10 to get a drink. As is my habit, I hit the keyboard to wake up the computer see if we were at war with anybody new. The lead headline that come up was that the clock had run out on Pete at age 94.

You can say it is unexpected when someone who is 94 dies of natural causes, but it’s still a shock when a national icon passes.

This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender

Pete Seeger at Florida Music Festival in White Springs, FL,  May 1977It’s funny how two photos that don’t even show Pete are my favorites from that evening in the spring of 1977.

No posse, no entourage

Pete Seeger at Florida Music Festival in White Springs, FL, May 1977After the performance, Pete stuck around backstage to sign autographs, pose for photos and to talk with his admirers, one and all. Then, when nobody had anything else to say, Pete hoisted up his banjo and guitar and a box and walked out into the night. I thought about that exit when I read what Arlo Guthrie wrote this morning.

He passed away. That doesn’t mean he’s gone

Arlo, the son of Woodie Guthrie, and a long-time friend and fellow performer, posted this this morning.

Pete Seeger at Florida Music Festival in White Springs, FL, 5/21 or 22/1977I let him know I was having trouble writing his obituary (as I’d been asked) but it seemed just so silly and I couldn’t think of anything that didn’t sound trite or plain stupid. “They’ll say something appropriate in the news,” we agreed. We laughed, we talked, and I took my leave about 9:30 last night.

“Arlo” he said, sounding just like the man I’ve known all of my life, “I guess I’ll see ya later.” I’ve always loved the rising and falling inflections in his voice. “Pete,” I said. “I guess we will.”

 I turned off the light and closed my eyes and fell asleep until very early this morning, about 3 AM when the texts and phone calls started coming in from friends telling me Pete had passed away.

 “Well, of course he passed away!” I’m telling everyone this morning. “But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.”

 

Pete Seeger & Songs of My Life

I was trading some messages with bicycling buddy Annie O’Reilly the other day when Pete Seeger’s name came up. I mentioned that I had seen Pete in concert three or four times and photographed him in May, 1977, when he played in White Springs, FL. I said that I’d keep my eyes out for the pictures while I was working on the Cape project. “He just turned 91, so I’d better have them ready for an obit. I hope it’s later, not sooner, though.”

I’ll toss up his photos, along with random thoughts about the music of my life.

A Bushel and A Peck

One of the first songs I can remember from my childhood is A Bushel and A Peck, with the lines, “I love you a bushel and a peck, A bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.” I don’t know if Mother would sing it to me or if it was just a phrase she’d use like, “Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

Johnny Horton and The Battle of New Orleans

The first song that was “mine” – meaning I knew all the lyrics and my parents didn’t teach them to me – was probably Johnny Horton’s 1959 hit, The Battle of New Orleans. I never realized what a colorful character he was until I Googled him.

My freshman debate partner, John Mueller, owned every Kingston Trio album ever cut, so I got introduced to Tom Dooley, M.T.A, Sloop John B, 500 Miles and Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Of course, I learned later that their rather saccharine versions of those songs had been done much more robustly by earlier singers, including Pete, but it was still a nice introduction to folk music.

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan

Marty Cearnal, a SEMO college student who worked at Nowell’s Camera shop introduced me to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what to make of Dylan, but that Joan sure could sing purty.

Peter, Paul and Mary

When Mary Travers died, I pulled out photos I shot of PP&M at Ohio University. You can read the whole account on my bike blog, PalmBeachBikeTours. Much like the Kingston Trio, PP&M made songs “sweet” and non-threatening.

They make Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right sound pretty. It wasn’t until I discovered Bob Dylan’s version that I appreciated the off-hand way Bob kinda verbally shrugs his shoulders as he dismisses a relationship gone sour because “I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul.”

After I published the story, Carol Towarnicky, a college friend, reminded me that the concert had been held April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King had been killed.

The thing I love about folks singers is that they really care for the message they’re delivering and they really care for their fans. After the PP&M show, the trio stuck around for an hour or more talking to the campus reporters and their fans. You’ll see Pete is the same way.

Florida Folk Festival

I was looking to replace a color film processor for The Post and wanted to see one like it in operation. The nearest one was at The Gainesville Sun. I noticed that Pete Seeger was scheduled to perform at White Springs, not far from there. Figuring I’d get a two-fer out of the trip, I planned to look at the processor, then go to the concert.

I ended up buying the film processor, but the high point of the trip was watching Pete up close. Unlike bigger venues, we were right up with him.

This Machine Surrounds Hate

We were close enough that we could clearly read the signature motto on Pete’s banjo: THIS MACHINE SURROUNDS HATE AND FORCES IT TO SURRENDER. With all the hate speech in the news these days, we need Pete more than ever.

I like Pete’s message better than Woodie Guthrie’s banjo that read, “This machine kills Fascists.”

Pete brings the crowd along

You aren’t a spectator at a Pete Seeger concert, you’re a participant. Grandparents, parents and grandkids are all pulled into the show.  If you don’t know the song lyrics – and that’s rare for his fans – he’ll coach you along.

After the show

It’s after the show that Pete’s decency and humanity came through. There were a few reporters hanging around, but the room backstage was filled with regular folks and their kids who wanted an autograph, a photo or just to talk to the man who is a national treasure.

He took time to talk with everyone and to make each of them feel special. I didn’t see him show any impatience or try to rush anyone through.

Where’s his entourage?

When he had finally talked with everyone who wanted to meet him, he hoisted his guitar and banjo over his shoulder and walked out. This isn’t a fellow who demands a dressing room with the right color of M&Ms in it.

I’m struck by how young Pete looks in these photos, although I thought he looked old when I took him in 1977. He was born in 1919, so he was about 60 when these photos were taken. I guess when you’re 30, 60 looks old.

Pete Seeger Photo Gallery

Click on any image to make it larger, then click on the left or right side of the photo to move through the gallery.

Copyright © Ken Steinhoff. All rights reserved.