Tuesday, January 28, 2014

This Man Sang For You and Me

Yes, I know Pete Seeger was old, 94.  Yes, I realize his health was failing.  However, I was still surprised when I heard of his death yesterday.   He was such a beloved American, that we felt he would live forever.  After reading all of the accolades about Pete, he certainly will live forever in our hearts and minds.   The man was a huge influence on me and my brother when we were growing up during the folk revival of the 1960s.
I was about 9 years old when my brother, Ken (7 years my senior) gave me Pete Seeger's "How to Play the 5-String Banjo" instruction book.  With Ken's help and Pete's book, I managed to learn the basics of playing many old-timey banjo tunes.  Ken thought I was good enough to enter the Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest (which was actually held IN Topanga in those early days).  I entered the children's division, beginning banjo.  I managed to take a first place, singing "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," a song I'd heard and memorized off a New Lost City Ramblers record, featuring Pete's half-brother, Mike Seeger.
My banjo playing went downhill from there.  I entered the Banjo and Fiddle Contest two years later and received a third place!  Oh well, I had other hobbies to pursue, like playing the guitar, painting, knitting and boys!  I did manage to maintain my chops well enough to play for morning sing many times when I was a counselor at Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts during summer session.  Below, I'm with my friend, Jonde, entertaining the campers and staff, probably with a version of "This Land is Your Land."

Jonde and Ellen, 1970, Idyllwild
Whenever I needed a refresher on my banjo chords, I could go to Pete's instruction book. I still have that tattered old book...somewhere.   I was lucky to see him perform a few times in Los Angeles during the 1960s.  In the late 1990s, Larry and I were at Jazz Fest in New Orleans and I made a special effort to get over to the stage where Pete was performing....in the rain.  Larry was off at a different stage.  I wouldn't have missed seeing Pete for anything in the world.  I was brought to tears as he sang and played  so many of the songs he was known for.  He was in his 80's at the time and spry, funny and entertaining as always.
I was delighted in 2009 when Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen played at Obama's Inaugural celebration concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.  In addition to sounding and looking great, Pete was wearing a fantastic knitted cap on his head.  Since my interests had drifted from folk music to knitting, I immediately looked for information on Pete's hat!  I wrote about it here in 2009.

Pete Seeger, January, 2009, Washington, D.C. wearing THAT hat!
Every time I watch John Ford's "Grapes of Wrath" on TV, I can't help but think of Pete Seeger and his activism when Henry Fonda as Tom Joad says this speech toward the end of the movie:
"A fella ain't got a soul of his own, but only a piece of a big soul, the one big soul out there that belongs to everybody. And then it don't matter. Then I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere…Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad, and I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready…And when our people eat the stuff they raise, and the houses they build, I'll be there too."
Thank you, Pete Seeger, for your devotion to humans around the world.  We will miss you, but remember you always.  I think I'll get my old banjo out tonight and bang out a few choruses of Woody Guthrie's "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Ya" and a few other Seeger favorites.

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At 9:29 PM PST, Blogger RossK said...

Great tribute Ellen.



At 9:59 PM PST, Blogger Ellen Bloom said...

Thanks, Ross. Pete was quite an inspiration!


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