#837 – Peter Barus Remembers Meeting Pete Seeger, Twice
NOTE: Icon folk song composer and singer Pete Seeger passed away Monday at 94. For a common persons selection of Pete Seeger on film, check YouTube here
Your own personal recollections and Comments about Pete Seeger are solicited.
Peter Barus writes from Vermont Jan. 28:
Pete Seeger is gone.
Here’s something I wrote when the issue was the Nobel Peace Prize (Jan 17, 2009).
The local radio station is devoting the whole day to remembering Pete, along with some big names, friends and neighbors, and family.
The world is a different shape now, without him.
If anyone ever deserved the highest awards for encouraging peace and justice in this world, Pete Seeger does, and many times over.
He has lived a lifetime of commitment to the great family of humanity and a world that works for all of us, with nobody left out. He has worked at this alone, when not too many people were watching, as well as in groups and teams and movements of people.
The last time I met Pete Seeger was in Nigeria, in 1963. This was one of those times when he was single handedly transforming the world, standing up before a crowd of strangers, in a strange land, and doing what he always does: bringing every single person into the full presence of their membership in the human race.
My father and mother and younger brother and I were on a little vacation from our then-home in Northern Nigeria, where Dad held an Exchange Professorship in Electrical Engineering at Amadu Bello University in Zaria. Nigeria had been “independent” for about four years. We drove into Benin City in our Ford Taurus, sort of like a ’56 Ford, but with less fins. The steering wheel was on the right, this being an erstwhile Crown Colony. Benin was not yet caught up in the throes of revolutionary war, as it would be the next year.
We stopped at a “rest house,” the usual name for a hotel in that time and place. They had a bar and a full-service entertainment establishment next door, if not actually in the hotel itself. The women hooted at me, a skinny white foreigner of sixteen, in a parody of flirtation, to see if I would blush, and laughed hilariously when I did.
That evening we all trooped down to the bar to see if there was something to eat, not to mention some Star beer for Dad. The joint was jumping. A happy crowd filled every corner of the hot, dim room. And there, in one corner, next to some French doors to a verandah out back, was Pete Seeger, banjo and all. He was sweating profusely, as always, and singing at the top of his lungs, whanging on the banjo. The crowd was entranced, enraptured. Joy was in the air. Pete taught them “This Land Is Your Land,” with local modifications for “From California, To the New York Island,” substituting some prominent landmarks.
Many in his audience could not speak English, but few seemed to care what the words to Pete’s songs were; they were soaking up the meaning through his infectious personality. When a break finally came, Pete went out the back door, and everybody politely let him have a little breathing room. So I went out there too. I had talked with him before, when I was about ten years old, fascinated with banjos, when he came to the college town I grew up in.
Pete was very tall, and gracious and kind. I mentioned a friend or two who knew him better than I, and he was pleased to hear of them. I felt that he actually remembered me, a small boy with big round eyes in a small college town where he performed sometimes. Back then, if I remember right, he was in the middle of a battle with HUAC, the so ironically-named House Un-American Activities Committee. When asked what he did for a living he had said: “I pick banjos.” McCarthy had asked him disdainfully, “And where do you pick these banjos?” What else could he have said? “Off banjo trees?”
Exotic creatures stirred in the grasses beyond the light of the verandah where we stood. Pete tuned up his famous long-necked banjo, the one with several extra notes below the usual range of the 5-string banjo, added to accommodate the key a crowd wants to sing in. He said “Take it easy, but take it,” and he went back into the raucous, happy crowd to sing them into a state of wondrous community with the whole world.
I have to say that my life’s course changed as a result of meeting Pete Seeger. I’ve always felt he was a special friend, though I only met him a couple of times. I emulated him in both his philosophy and chosen profession. This has given me a certain view of what it takes to do what he does. The memory of him and that crowd of people, who could not have been more exotic to each other, in songs of human possibility, has stuck with me for more than forty years, and inspires me today.
from Mike R, Jan 29: I was in high school when the Weavers were most popular, and I was a fan like most NYC kids my age. There were folk song concerts all over the city, lots of places for folk and square dancing. Later on I became aware of Pete Seeger as a solo artist and a fan of his. When he toured in the 70’s and 80’s with Arlo Guthrie Pat and I saw him at Orchestra Hall.
His artistry was, as always, unique and he had the audience in his hands from his first song. He was known for “This Land is Your Land,” but I liked “Guantanamera” (a Cuban song) best.
He was part of my youth and I will miss him for his music and his humanity.
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