Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Fighting for the rights of the oppressed -Toshi Seeger

At the weekend I learned with great sadness of the death of Toshi Seeger. She died on July 9th. She had just turned 91 on July 1st. Four years ago I had the huge pleasure of meeting her and her husband Pete at their home in Upper New York State.

As a teenager growing up in the 1960s Pete Seeger was and still is one of my heroes. He was an American singer songwriter and was already a legend by that time.  Seeger was a contemporary of Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie; wrote and sang songs of protest; was vocal in his opposition to segregation and racism, and in support of trade unions, and in the 1950’s he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

His songs helped shape the music of the 20th century and influenced generations of other musicians. For over 70 years he has been out there singing his songs and making music for workers and fighters for civil rights, and women and disadvantaged people. He still is at ninety four years of age.

Anyone who saw him on television with Bruce Springsteen and a gang of
other wonderful musicians at the first Obama inauguration will have marvelled at the man’s energy and musicality. And he is still an activist. And an idealist.

Four years ago, during one of my mad schedules of events in the USA and Canada a mutual friend arranged for me to travel to Pete’s home in Beacon, in the Hudson River Valley in Upper New York State and to meet him and his wonderful wife Toshi.

 They live in a forest. In 1949 he and Toshi bought a bit of land and lived in a trailer before building a log cabin and after some time the house that they now live in. It is a very beautiful and quite isolated place.

When we arrived at the front door Pete was on his way out. He was pushing a wheelbarrow.

‘Here are our friends, all the way from Ireland’ he announced to Toshi, a
small cheery faced woman who was busy at the table in the big kitchen.
She welcomed and shepherded us into the heat while her husband wheeled
his barrow outside.

‘Pete was bringing in wooden blocks for the fire’ Toshi explained.

Soon we were gathered in a circle listening to Pete’s yarns. He is a
natural story teller and within minutes he was singing for us to
illustrate a point. His first songs were pop songs from the 1920’s and
he sang a few bars to give us a flavour of that time.

‘Now here’s one an Irish plumber taught me forty years ago and he launched
into Óró Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile.

‘Óró sé do bheatha bhaile. Oró sé do bheatha bhaile. Oró sé do bheatha baile. Anios ar theacht an tsamhraidh.’

This Blog is pleased to say that I sang close harmony on that one.

And before we knew we were into Guantanamera and then If I Had A Hammer and Pete was talking about his parents and his grandparents and his Irish great granny and Woodie Guthrie, and The Weavers and Ireland and Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Sands and Bruce Springsteen and the Clean Up the Hudson campaign, all interspersed with songs and Toshi was making tea and keeping him right. 

Because that’s what she did for 70 years – organising his life and keeping him right.  

Speaking after her death Pete described her as the ‘brains of the family’. ‘I’d get an idea and wouldn’t know how to make it work and she’d figure out how to make it work.’ 

In a biography of him in 1981 the author said of Toshi: ‘As Pete’s producer she made sure he was in the right place at the right time and in the right mood and knew where to go next. When problems arose she took the blame. At tax time when her shy singer couldn’t face how much money he earned – or worse, how much he gave the government for war – Toshi would place a blank page over the return when he signed it.’ 

Toshi produced his concerts, organised his schedule, helped found the Newport Folk Festival and made an Emmy award winning documentary about him. 

She was fundamental to his life. But she also had a wicked sense of humour. One friend of the family recalls seeing an old cartoon on the wall. It’s of a woman answering the phone and she’s got a child under her arm  and the phone in her hand and she’s doing the dishes and mopping the floor with her foot and the caption reads something like; ‘I’m sorry my husband can’t come to the phone right now. He’s out fighting for the rights of the oppressed.’ 

Our visit to their home in November 09 was a special moment. Toshi’s death is a huge blow to Pete and their son Daniel, daughters Mika and Tinya, their six grandchildren and one great grandson. But it is also a loss to all of us who have admired and enjoyed the music of Pete Seeger.  

Go ndeanfaidh Dia trocaire uirthi.


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