Seeger’s voice echoes around Pioneer Valley
David Bernz photo
Lorre Wyatt of Greenfield and Pete Seeger, his close friend of 50 years, released an album together last year.
Pete Seeger, left, and Lorre Wyatt of Greenfield, right, have been friends for about 50 years. Here they work on songs at Seeger’s home in New York, part of a two-year songwriting collaboration that led to the release of a new CD titled “A More Perfect Union: New Songs by Old Friends.”
Folk singer, song collector and social activist Pete Seeger left so many songs and stories behind for generations of fans around the world before his death Monday at 94, they were like grains of sand he often talked about, that tip the scales in the right direction.
Greenfield folksinger Lorre Wyatt, who last year released an album, “A More Perfect Union” with Seeger, his close friend of 50 years, noted “It’s rare you find someone who, when you know them offstage, lives up to everything you’d hope they’d be. I’ve wished more people realized again about Pete, how creative he is, how much he’s been a part of American society, getting people involved in the music, getting them harmonizing and singing.”
Wyatt says Seeger would speak of life as a giant see-saw, with each of us able to contribute a teaspoonful of sand in a seemingly futile way that eventually could tip the balance to avoid catastrophes, environmental or political.
“Do I rather put my grain of sand on the side of a scale I believe in and then encourage others, and grain by grain, things start to tip,” Wyatt related from lessons from Seeger. “He says it’s always an ongoing struggle, and if you keep your eyes open and actively get involved, change can be made. The question is, will we as a species realize soon enough?”
For Wendell folksinger Court Dorsey, whose folk ensemble, “Bright Morning Star” performed often with the legendary but always humble Seeger, there are memories of “Pete” routinely picking up pieces of paper littered on the ground, as a matter of course.
Vermont folksinger Peter Siegel, a former Franklin County resident, recalls “Pete,” from whose lap he recalls hearing songs from age 3. There was the time he and his sister in their teens or 20s were greeted for their late arrival at a folk gathering with Seeger interrupting what he was saying to get up and bring them pails to sit on, with the words, “We’ve got to get you a seat!”
Dorsey added, “Pete was someone who was just who he is. He really had the same kind of integrity in his personal life.”
Seeger, whose death at 94 came a little more than six months after that of his wife of nearly 70 years, had a way of “putting everybody totally at ease” at gatherings of the People’s Music Network, at which “he was just another attendee,” recalls Diane Crowe of Leverett, the network’s administrative coordinator. “It was his great respect for everybody who was there. He was so welcoming to everybody. That was his great gift. He got people singing. He understood the movement and power of music, and he knew how to use it.”
Seeger, the son and stepson of musicologists who introduced him at a tender age to rural folk music, who dropped out of Harvard and met folk balladeer Woody Guthrie in 1940, spent his life actively encouraging everyone to sing.
“He left one of the most substantial musical legacies of any creator of music in the 20 th century,” said Shelburne Falls folksinger Charlie King. “Yet his purpose was always to encourage others to make music. You never went to a Pete Seeger concert to listen. There are musicians who primarily powered others through movements like the Civil Rights movement. But they don’t have the body of work that Pete leaves behind.”
King, who met Seeger at a 1976 concert where both men were performing in Harlem, says, “When I look for a model for how to live my life, Pete is the first person on the list. Virtually every weekend that he was home, he stood on the vigil line in Beacon, being present, waving to the cars that passed, holding up a sign urging us to choose peace over war. He was an activist and a songwriter and a singer and an empowerer and kind of a grandfather or father to all of us.”
Dorsey recalled a magical moment when Seeger followed Bright Morning Star after the six-member group’s finale at an Ohio concert, where Dorsey wondered how Seeger could possibly follow that as a single performer.
“He comes out with a penny whistle and stands in the spotlight for 15 or 20 seconds and plays the softest, gentlest little song. It was perfect and exactly the opposite of what we’d done. It was profoundly beautiful.”
What Dorsey called Seeger’s “musical brilliance” and his understanding of audiences, was echoed by Wyatt.
Seeger was a familiar presence in the Pioneer Valley, where his grandson, Tao Rodriguez Seeger lived and also performed for a short time. One of their appearances was at a 1994 benefit at Northfield Mount Hermon School for the Pioneer Valley War Tax Resisters, funding its “Building Our Homes Into Plowshares” project that resulted in the construction of two new houses in East Greenfield.
Shelburne Falls singer Sarah Pirtle said, “He rested in a sense of the basic goodness of people and the basic goodness of life. That was how he went out into the world. He had this deep faith in people, a sense that if the people were brought before people, they’d make the right decision.”
As a 12-year-old girl sitting on her bed in “a stuck-up community in New Jersey” with his “Folk Singer’s Guitar Guide,” she recalled, “Pete showed me what life could be. Probably a million people had that identical experience. For me, Pete would stretch out his hand in a very personal way and say to us all, ‘Your voice matters.’ Even before I knew him, it came across in the way he wrote and sang. He had this way of personally connecting to people, to his spirit. I truly felt he had this blazing heart that brought forward the goodness of life and the power to stand behind how the world could and should work.”
Seeger, whom Pirtle described as “so egalitarian that he insisted that he, along with everyone else, put their names in a hat because he never wanted to stand out,” used to tell the Peoples Music Network that people don’t realize how much we lost when we stopped being “a singing nation.”
“When you sing,” he’d say, “You sing heart to heart. It doesn’t matter the size of the group; everyone feels connected .”
Greenfield music teacher Eveline MacDougall, whose chorus Amandla sang with Seeger at Lincoln Center, the Clearwater Folk Festival and elsewhere, recalled visiting his house in Beacon, N.Y., and having a private conversation with him for a couple of hours outdoors overlooking the Hudson where she finally told him how much she respected and admired him.
“He said ‘I admire you. You’re so lucky to not be famous. If I were you, I’d just stay focused right in your community and try to keep body and soul together and do your good work. I’m so envious of you that you have this unfettered life. It’s an advantage to fly under the radar.’
“Like when Nelson Mandela died, it’s an amazing thing to just pause and say, ‘Wow, what did we gain from this person being on the planet? Every day, there’s something in my day, musical, philosophical, that I got from Pete Seeger.”
You can reach Richie Davis at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269