Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger: singer, song writer, political activist, champion of the oppressed has died

Mise agus Toshi agus Pete

The great Pete Seeger has died. Seven months after the death of his wife Toshi he passed away on Monday evening at the age of 94 in a New York hospital. Fear maith é. Bro norm an sceal seo a fhail.
In November 2009 I visited Pete and Toshi at their home in Beacon, in the Hudson River Valley in Upper New York State. In memory of a marvellous time I am posting extracts from the blog I posted following that visit and then Toshi’s death last July:
“Regular readers will recall that this Blog was in the USA and Canada on one of those mad a-city-a-day schedule at the beginning of November. What you did not know was that in between all the other bits I got to meet with Pete Seeger and his wonderful wife Toshi. A mutual friend got me Pete’s contact details and I am eternally grateful to him for that.

When I was a teenager Pete Seeger was one of my heroes. He still is. He
was out there singing his songs and making music for workers and fighters
for civil rights, and women and disadvantaged people generally as I got interested in Irish and world politics. He is still at it at ninety one years of age.

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

So when he agreed to meet our small group we were delighted. He lives with Toshi in upstate New York in a forest. He and Toshi bought a bit of land there in 1949 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. Your man was green with envy. I was delighted with myself. Imagine Pete Seeger singing Oró Sé Do Bheatha Baile. With me !!!

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 and we were greatly honoured to be with this great man and very wonderful woman.

Tinya, their daughter who runs a pottery in their basement joined us and
talked about Portadown and we went out and I collected acorns from around
their house and before we knew it was time to go again.

Pete gave me his new book WHERE HAVE ALL THE FLOWERS GONE? It’s terrific. Tons of songs, music, stories and a cd. Your man might just get it for Christmas. If he is good. Well if he is very, very good. It’s available through
Sing Out Corporation. P.O Box 5460. PA 18015-0460. USA.
Following Toshi’s death I recalled her unique and spirit defence of the oppressed and her role of more than 70 years of organising Pete’s 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.”
Pete Seeger’s influence on generations of musicians and political activists is immeasurable. He was blacklisted in the 1950’s McCarthy era; his music influenced Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and scores of others; he wrote the civil rights anthem, ‘We Shall Overcome’ and hundreds of other memorable songs. Four years ago Springsteen introduced him at a Madison Square Garden concert as ‘a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along.’ 
I want to extend my condolences to Pete and Toshi’s son Daniel, daughters Mika and Tinya, their six grandchildren and one great grandson.


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