BY ELLIOT STEPHEN COHEN
It is with heartbreaking sadness that I learned of the passing of Pete Seeger. Seeger, of course, was a larger-than-life icon, whose influence far extended beyond music. People will probably be singing songs of his, like "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" and "If I Had A Hammer" centuries from now, and take inspiration from the way he lived his life and suffered for standing up for his sometimes unpopular beliefs.
Although I had been aware of Seeger for many years, I didn't get to see him perform until December 2012, at Manhattan's Beacon Theater, as part of a fundraising event to bring awareness to jailed Native American activist Leonard Peltiere. Of course, raising political awareness was a major part of what Seeger was all about.
The following morning, there was a press conference held at The Beacon Hotel, which is where I first had the chance of meeting Seeger, who graciously signed a new acoustic guitar I had bought for the occasion. Even though he was in a rush to leave, he asked if I'd like for him to also draw a caricature of myself on the guitar, which he did, along with his trademark banjo drawing.
Of course, it's something I will always treasure.
From that point on, I became practically obsessed in learning everything I could about Seeger, speaking with admirers of his, like Harry Belafonte, Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, Buffy St. Marie, Peter Yarrow, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, John Sebastian, Tom Paxton and others.. It seemed all I had to do was say “I'm writing about Pete,” and all of these great people were happy to take time to share their stories about him.
After being invited by Pete last January to come to one of his monthly Sloop Club pot luck dinner meetings in Beacon, New York, I attended just about every Seeger event I could, the monthly meetings, the big annual Clearwater Festival, the local Corn Fest, Strawberry and Wampum Festivals, Seeger's honorary award presentation night at Beth Israel Hospital, the Hiroshima memorial event at Manhattans' Buddhist Center, benefits such as the one for New York radio station WBAI, and his more recent appearance with Work Of The Weavers in Beacon’s Towne Crier Cafe.
During the course of the past year, I also spent hours on the phone with Seeger, hearing about his life, and while the conversation usually strayed far from my original questions, it was always fascinating, just hearing him speak. Most times when we spoke, he would break out into a song at least once, something he loved doing. Even though I've been interviewing famous music people for many years, I would sometimes look at my telephone, in amazement that Pete Seeger was actually singing to just me!
Sadly, my final time of seeing Seeger was at his private wake, Tuesday night. That same evening, local Beacon musician David Bernz, who knew Seeger for most of his life, invited others who also loved him to share their grief in a way that would have pleased him: singing songs. The general consensus was that he would have wanted it that way.
When asked in December 2012 what he would like most to be remembered for, the then-93-year-old told me, "I'd like to be remembered as the sower of seeds. That's the greatest parable in the Bible as far as I'm concerned. Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stomped on and don't grow, but some fall on the ground and multiply a-thousand-fold. So, like most teachers, I'm just a sower of seeds."
Rest in Peace, Pete.