No question Pete Seeger was one of the iconic figures of the 20th century, the king of sing-along, champion of American and world folk music, a man with a point of view and a voice and banjo to put it through.
Pete was about the common good, and though over the years his activism put him at odds with the powers that be, he held fast to his views and foremost the idea that voices raised together in song could make a difference for the better. Pete was right about that, and the proof is in every note he sang and the legacy he left behind.
I first met Pete in 1975, when I interviewed him on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Sing Out! the folk music magazine that he, Woody Guthrie and others started back in 1950. A few times over the years, I invited Pete to come to Central Pennsylvania to perform. He had a number of interesting ties to the region.
For one, the Alan Seeger Natural Area, about 20 miles southeast of State College, was named for his uncle, a poet and adventurer who, while serving in the French Foreign Legion, died during World War I at the Battle of the Somme. Also, Pete’s father, Charles, the noted folklorist, had a close kinship with Samuel Bayard, a Penn State professor and distinguished folklorist/song collector in his own right (and a mentor to me when I was a Penn State undergrad). Lastly, Pete shared concert stages early in his career with Penn State professor and author Bernie Asbel, with Asbel on at least one occasion getting top billing. (He had the poster to prove it framed on his living room wall.)
For one reason or another, we were never able to make a local Pete Seeger appearance happen. Then, in 2012, in partnership with the Guthrie family and the Grammy Museum, I spearheaded a Penn State conference celebrating the life and legacy of Woody Guthrie. The event was one of several nationwide marking Woody’s 100th birthday. Once again, I invited Pete. He wanted to come, but now age and his desire to stay close to his ailing wife, Toshi, prevented him. Pete told me that he thought honoring Woody was an important thing to do, so he invited me to his home in New York to film an interview to be shown at the Penn State conference.
My wife, Joyce, and I drove to Pete’s home on a hilltop overlooking the Hudson River. Pete and I sat knee to knee in his front yard, my camera between us. We talked about Woody, the start of the folk song magazines Sing Out! and People’s Songs, the influence of Pete’s father and the origin of a famous folk song, “Union Maid.” Pete’s wife died the year after our visit, and we lost Pete at age 94 in January.
The OLLI course, “Pete Seeger: A Video Interview on Woody Guthrie, the Power of Song and the Folk Process,” will show the short film I made from the conversation with Pete as well as anecdotes from that experience.
OLLI courses are open to all adults. There are no grades or tests; the only requirement is a love for learning. To register for this course, go to www.olli.psu.edu or call 867-4278.