The first time I ever got involved in anything that could be called controversial was when my class in the fifth or sixth grade took a trip to hear a Pete Seeger concert. I was going to school in Brooklyn, and the class went to the venue in a little school bus, and outside the concert, the John Birch Society was picketing. They had all these pamphlets and they were yelling, "Pete is a Commie," and calling him all kinds of names.
I walked up to one of the John Birch Society members and asked, "Is this really true?" He said, "Oh, yes," and I said, "Give me those pamphlets. I'm going to help you out." They gave me and my classmates all of the pamphlets and we just put them in our pockets and walked into the venue, so there were no more pamphlets for them to give out.
Pete Seeger: Folk Hero
That was my first political action and it was due to Pete. I had met him once or twice as a child. He was was a friend of my father, not my friend yet, but through the years we bridged that gap.
Pete took over the annual Weavers reunion concert at Carnegie Hall that had been a mile marker in the blacklist era of the mid-1950s. He asked me to join him in 1968. It became a Pete and Arlo concert, and for the next 30 years we did two nights, the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving.
That continued until some time in the '90s when he said, "I can't do those big events anymore. I can't sing like I used to. I can't play like I used to play." I said, "Look at our audience-they can't hear like they used to hear. Shouldn't be a problem." He did it for a few more years and eventually I inherited that date at Carnegie Hall and kept inviting Pete every year.
Last November I invited him again and he said, "OK, I'll come." I said it was a regular show and we turned it into a Pete tribute once he was onstage so he couldn't get away. It was a wonderful evening.
Pete would complain that he could only remember three songs. He was 94, so you tended to believe him. I knew that even if he couldn't remember a song, when he heard it, it could come back. Sure enough, every song, he listened for a few seconds and started singing or playing along.
His real gift was making us feel connected to everyone else around the world, and the best way to do that was to learn their songs. At every Pete concert there was a song from somewhere else: It might have been from Africa or from Russia or songs that little kids had written in Japan. There would be Palestinian songs, songs from places that, to him, were places where we didn't have enough commonality. Some part of every concert was Pete reaching across the world and bringing people together. He would do the same thing overseas-take American songs to others.
One of the funniest stories I ever heard happened in the '50s when he took a trip to the Soviet Union. He was with his manager Harold Leventhal, who would become my manager, and they were going to their first gig, driving in a big limousine. Pete sees on the side of the road a guy cutting trees. He says, "Stop the car," gets out and buys a log and an axe. He brings the log and the axe to the concert.
The concert hall is a big, gilded classical stage. There is no microphone, no sound system, and the Soviet representative tells Harold, "This is folk music. What do you need microphones for?"
This is troubling. They expected someone in a tuxedo who would sing in a classical voice that would reach the back of the room. And Pete is onstage wearing a checkered logging shirt and some blue jeans carrying a log and an axe.
The theater representative asked, "When is Mr. Seeger going to get dressed?," and Harold says, "This is what he wears." They can't believe it.
To make matters worse, Pete starts chopping the log onstage during the sound check after they get some microphones. The guy is going crazy and asking, "What is he doing?" Harold explains that Pete was going to perform an old work song and chop along to demonstrate how these work songs were sung in America. The guy doesn't get it.
Pete does the concert and it's a tremendous success, because no one has ever seen anyone singing while dressed like a peasant or chopping wood. It stunned the audience.
I love stories like that. He brought experiences to us without making a big deal out of it-it's just another song, something somebody wrote. He brought humanity together with his actions, not just as a performer but as a human being.
- As told to Phil Gallo. This article first appeared in Billboard magazine. Buy a copy of this issue here.