Valley residents remember Pete Seeger
File-This Sept. 21, 2013, file photo shows Pete Seeger performing on stage during the Farm Aid 2013 concert at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The American troubadour, folk singer and activist Seeger died Monday Jan. 27, 2014, at age 94. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)
File-This Aug. 28, 1948, file photo shows Henry A. Wallace, listening to Pete Seeger, his banjo-playing singer, on a plane between Norfolk and Richmond, Va. The American troubadour, folk singer and activist Seeger died Monday Jan. 27, 2014, at age 94. (AP Photo/File)
NORTHAMPTON — As a young boy growing up in the McCarthy era, Michael Klare still vividly recalls singing folk songs with Pete Seeger at Camp Woodland in Phoenicia, N.Y., 60 years ago.
Blacklisted by the U.S. government at the time, Seeger would visit the progressive, multi-ethnic and co-ed summer camp to engage children with his banjo and sing-alongs.
“He made a huge impression on me and I can picture him to this day,” said Klare, of Northampton. “He was incredibly engaging. He treated us as his peers, as people who were his equals to join in the spirit of folk singing.”
As Seeger, who died Monday at age 94 in New York, is remembered around the globe for his remarkable and storied life in music, friends and Valley residents who crossed paths with him recalled Seeger’s enduring influence on their lives and music — as children and adults.
Klare, who is now Five College professor of peace and world security studies, said his early exposure to Seeger’s music-making left a lasting impression.
“Everybody could sing, you didn’t have to be a trained musician,” recalled Klare, who was about 9 years old when he first sang with Seeger. “It was a very important part of growing up to have that exposure. He was a touchstone of my childhood and my youth.”
For Nerissa Nields, Seeger’s musical influence on her father, John Nields, as a child at his New York school in the 1950s has now influenced three generations.
Nerissa and her sister Katryna Nields, of the folk music duo The Nields, today perform and work with children in area schools. Their father had played for them the music he learned from Seeger as a child.
“My dad was one of those lucky kids learning at his knees,” Nerissa Nields said. “We had been given the songs directly through our dad. He played the guitar and sang them to us.”
The Nields family would later take family trips to Virginia to hear Seeger and Arlo Guthrie perform.
“He wanted to change the world and he was very smart to do it through music and very effective,” Nields said. “He was so generous as a musician. He always put the other people on the stage in front of him. He always championed other songwriters and singers and shared the stage with such grace and magnanimity.”
Roger Salloom of Northampton is another musician and songwriter whose career was influenced in part by Seeger. As a shy 12-year-old, Salloom said, his mother helped introduce him to music and asked him to pick an instrument.
“Somehow I said banjo, five-string, and that was because of Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio,” Salloom said. “It was Pete who got under my skin. For a long time, I played banjo and a lot of his tunes. A lot of Lead Belly songs. A lot of songs no one knows anymore.”
Salloom said he’s almost certain he studied Seeger’s classic book “How to Play the Five-String Banjo,” and would eventually perform with Seeger in Northampton in 2001 in a benefit concert for The Rosenberg Fund for Children. The two talked offstage.
“He told me to do songs people can sing along to, to get people to sing because it makes them feel good,” Salloom said. “I’m just sad he’s died. Really sad.”
Others said they cherished the time they spent with Seeger collaborating on musical performances and recordings, archival projects, or simply listening to the folk music legend’s sage advice. Seeger was driven to get people to sing and incessantly helped those who wanted the same, say those who knew him.
Johanna Halbeisen of Northampton recalled how Seeger contacted her around 1980 in Cambridge to help assemble a chorus for a recording he wanted to do that would help, as Halbeisen put it, “show future song leaders some of the techniques of teaching songs without everybody’s nose buried in a piece of paper.”
At the time, Halbeisen was assembling an archive of social protest music now known as the New Song Library. Seeger’s recording under Smithsonian Folkways is called “Singalong Sanders Theatre, 1980,” on which Halbeisen sang in the chorus to songs in Spanish and English like “Christo Ya Nacio” and “If I Had a Hammer.”
“It’s pretty powerful,” she said of the recording. “That to me is the essence of his music, getting people to sing.”
Dan Czitrom, a professor of modern U.S. political and cultural history at Mount Holyoke College, said that in addition to Seeger’s pivotal role in the folk music revival and social protest, he should be remembered for breaking down the boundaries between folk and pop music.
“There’s no question that Seeger is one of the most influential musical figures in American history,” Czitrom said. “His influence in songwriting is all over America. It’s in the DNA of American culture.”
Czitrom pointed to songs such as “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “If I Had A Hammer,” “Wimoweh,” “Guantanamera,” “Sloop John B,” “This Land Is Your Land” and “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” as examples.
“You can go to any public school, summer camp, or youth program anywhere in the U.S. and you will hear kids singing these songs,” he said.
Ciztrom also said more attention should be paid to Seeger as a pioneer in what is today known as world music. In addition to his more well-known persona as a folk musician and songwriter, Seeger left an imprint in other parts of the music world, including in Spain, where his recordings of pro-democracy songs of the Spanish Civil War from returning Americans who fought there in the 1930s eventually circulated underground. When Seeger visited the country in the late 1970s, he was shocked to hear Spaniards singing the songs that had long been suppressed by the fascist government, but which he and others recorded from the approximately 2,800 Americans who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
“They got hold of his recordings. They had tapes,” Czitrom said. “It’s really an example of the power of world music.”
Others who knew Seeger, including Eveline MacDougall, founder and director of The Amandla Chorus in Greenfield, said he was deeply interested in world music.
“South African music was of particular interest to him,” said MacDougall, noting that she first met Seeger in 1989 at age 25 and during the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.
MacDougall said she collaborated with Seeger on several musical projects and developed a friendship that included frequent correspondence and time spent at Seeger’s home in Beacon, N.Y.
“He gave me so many suggestions of songs to do,” MacDougall said. “I was so appreciative of his warmth and encouragement. He never let fame go to his head.”
About 30 years ago, Lynne Knudsen of Easthampton was singing with a group in New Jersey that Seeger would sometimes coach and teach new songs. When the group learned that Seeger had been invited to Sweden by the head of the labor movement in that country, but could not make it, they went in his place. She wrote a song to Seeger then and sang it with a bit of a calypso beat to the Swedes, which went, in part:
“Dear Pete Seeger, do you know
How you inspire so many
To love one another & grow
You have the courage to fight the powerful ones
To make life worth living for our daughters and sons
You helped the hungry and poor, the working’ woman and man
To know that someone cares about this beautiful land....”
Knudsen said that when she returned to the United States, she made a recording of the song and sent it to Seeger. One night while playing chess with her son in New Jersey, the phone rang and Seeger was on the other line. He was touring in the South and had called Knudsen to tell her he had listened to her song and enjoyed it.
“I was very moved by it,” Knudsen recalled of the surprise phone call. “I don’t even know how he knew my phone number.”
Dan Crowley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.