Pete Seeger was one of the most influential folk singers and activists out there. Having influenced countless generations of musicians, he passed recently, at the age of 94.
Matt Emmer, a Second-year student studying English, here at Clark, knew him rather well and shared his experiences with Pete with us:
When did you first become aware of Pete Seeger and folk music in general?
In 7th grade. I was heavily into classic-rock back then, and my parents took me to see him [Pete Seeger] and Richie Havens play in the auditorium of Beacon High School. He was 88 at the time, and his performance just blew me away. I went home and started learning to play his songs on my guitar; it was lucky that the library had such a large Pete Seeger collection. I also picked up the banjo that we had lying around the house, and began to learn to play that.
You had a banjo just lying around the house?
Yeah. My brother, who was never as into music as I am, had asked for one but had never got round to playing it.
And so, how did you come to know Pete?
When I was in high school – I was probably 16 – I found out that he was looking for young adults, high school and college students, interested in folk music to join his Power of Song band. It was a pretty self-selecting group, which changed in size over the years. Generally we ranged from half-a-dozen to a dozen people within the band.
Was this band Pete Seeger’s band?
Not really. We would open for him, singing a song or two of our own, as well as some better-known folk songs. Then Pete would come on and we’d back him up but we were our own band. I actually used to share a microphone with him onstage so that we could match up chords.
Wow. So you had a quite a bit of interaction with him?
Well, different members of the group had different levels of interaction with him. Personally, I had quite a bit…just because I play both guitar and banjo (mainly because of the banjo though) and we would practice together sometimes.
Could you tell me about your favorite memory of Pete?
There are multiple.
One of the greatest moments of my life was when I got to lead a march for Occupy Wall Street with Pete and a group of folk legends, including Arlo [Guthrie]. We had finished performing nearby at Symphony Space and Tao, his grandson, had organized to march to Columbus Circle to join the protest. Initially I was just watching but Pete called me up and told me that I deserved to be there. It was amazing hearing this huge crowd singing songs like This Little Light of Mine or If I Had a Hammer in the peaceful protests. And, I got to lead the songs and use the People’s microphone. It was definitely one of my favorites.
Another one was when we were learning this incredibly complex Arabic folk song. We were finding it difficult to master and told Pete that we didn’t think that it was a good idea to perform it but Pete really wanted to do it. And he did. We made these huge banners for the crowd and he managed to get this huge crowd at the Hudson River Revival (The Clearwater – Pete’s Organization for environmental awareness – Festival) to sing this incredibly difficult Arabic folk song that they had never heard before. It was incredible.
I’d have to say that another one of them is definitely about the last time I interacted Pete Seeger. It was last June/July at the Beacon Strawberry Festival, a relatively small one, in New York. We were sharing a microphone on stage, which was just a hill, during the finale. It’s probably how I’ll remember him.
Well, it’s not really my favorite but I thought it was really cool… I wrote this song and played it for the band. They all really liked it (even though I didn’t think it was great) and so did Pete. And during one of our performances, they decided to play the song, without me knowing. I didn’t particularly like the song but it was amazing that he did that.
That’s awesome. So, what’s your song about?
You know… it’s a typical folk song. I actually sold it to HBO recently.
Really? That’s amazing. What are they using it for?
They’re planning this children’s documentary for the environment and they might use it for that.
So you write songs. Did you write anything with Pete?
There was this one time that I wrote for him. Pete was approached to create a video for America’s Great Outdoors Program. So Pete let us work on it and we needed to add new verses to This Land is Your Land, and I wrote them. Then we performed them for the video.
This is all amazing. Thank you for sharing it with us.
No problem. Pete was a great and kind musician and activist who really cared for the causes he supported.
Thank you Matt Emmer for sharing your stories!