Pete Seeger’s recent passing has given me pause to reflect upon the not so subtle influence that he has had on my life. From the time I first heard about him through this very day, Pete and his music have had a positive effect on me and perhaps not as noticeable effect on my children.
This story really begins with Bob Dylan singing about Woody Guthrie on his first album for Columbia records:
Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song
’Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along…
As a avid archivist, I was intrigued by all the connections that Dylan pointed out to those of us who had ears to hear. In 1965 I was walking the line between 9th and 10th grades and felt, to the best of my recollection, all the turmoil that was blowing in the wind during those very formative years.
Vanguard Records had an “Two-For” album collection that included Doc Watson, Ian and Sylvia, Richard and Mimi Farina and Dave Van Ronk, just to name a few of the more prominent artists of that day.
In those days, you could only get about 16-20 minutes on each side of vinyl disc, so in effect, two albums might only have 64 minutes on all four sides. In comparison, a current CD can have up to 80 minutes of music on it.
It was a small world for me growing up in Port Huron, Michigan. I don’t really remember having anyone to share my interest in folk music with. Listening to these many musicians was one thing that kept me sane and helped me maneuver through those tumultuous years. Though this channel would ebb and flow over time, it was always and anchor for me.
I might also add that I have never really considered myself to be a great singer, so it was with great delight that I took Woody’s advice and sang the old songs I discovered in such a way that I could be comfortable with them. This doesn’t mean that I sang them the way they were recorded, just the way I felt that my voice could handle them. In other words, I was not a copy artist but a loose interpreter of songs.
I remember a girlfriend of mine who had perfect pitch telling me that I couldn’t sing—a statement which bothered me for many long years—until I realized (much to much later in life) that she was not saying I could not sing, just that I didn’t sing the songs the way they were recorded and therefore meant to be sung again and again. In the larger scheme of things, I was never going to be a traveling minstrel, but this type of information was definitely not helpful in forming a positive self-image.
I could dwell on these many past memories but for the sake of time will jump into the 80’s and 90’s and the era of having children and all those pleasant things.
One of my favorite all time Pete Seeger albums was called “Story Songs” and was a live performance recorded at The Village Gate on April 30, 1961. It included the song “The Foolish Frog” which was to become one of our children’s favorites. That song, along with “Abiyoyo”, “Sweepy, Sweepy, Sweepy” and “Where’s My Pajama’s” became before bedtime standards around the Henry hacienda.
Although I doubt that my children will admit to it today, these songs and many others helped us make it through many hours in the rocking chair during ear infections, tummy aches and those hours spent trying to get them to wind down before bedtime.
My youngest (she’s 20 now) Laura loved to swing and we’d spend lots of time in the back yard with her swinging and me learning to play the mandolin and singing “Put Your Finger In The Air”, “Take You Riding In My Car” and other Seeger classics that he had sung with Woody and others over the years. Now that I am learning the play the Ukelele, I guess I need to pull this songs out of hibernation and bring them to life again (for the grandkids, y’all).
As you can probably tell by this point, I could go on and on in mining this rich motherlode of memories. I have covered a period of about 40 years in just a few sentences. Suffice it to say, I have done a lot of hard traveling as well in between. Nevertheless, my life has reached a period of relative calm and dwelling within a safe harbor. The winds of change are still swirling and uncertainly abounds—not much different than those middle 60’s years.
What has changed however is that we are filled with many memories and good thoughts about life and living and having known people like Pete Seeger, however brief, has changed the way we live for the better.
And that’s a good ride, don’t ya know.
Please teach me some of those songs so we can sing them together, along with some Woody tunes and others that we know about.