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PETE SEEGER - A REMEMBRANCE
By ©IV Daniel Aubry
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“Long live the songs that comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” - Pete Seeger


We who spend time in Beacon, NY had the rare privilege of having Pete Seeger living amongst us. He was our local treasure.

We’d run into Pete at Nichols Hardware or going into the Chase bank. Or at the farmer’s market in the winter at the Sloop Club, where he would be warming himself by a roaring fire.

As gaunt and lanky as Don Quixote, whom he resembled, Pete walked ungainly like a stork, often hand in hand with Toshi, his formidable wife of seventy years. He wasn’t much given to small talk and we all respected that. It was enough that he was there.

What many saw as reticence, even aloofness, my wife, Clodagh, thought was simply shyness. Whenever we’d run into him she would impulsively give him a hug and tell him how much we loved him. And he would suddenly seem to glow like a jack-o-lantern, his eyes twinkling mischievously.

Pete Seeger was a fixture at the annual Corn and Strawberry festivals at Riverside park. I can remember Toshi commanding a mostly female brigade, as they produced industrial quantities of strawberry shortcake to benefit their Clearwater initiative.

There was recurrent talk in the Beacon City Council and in the community of renaming Riverside Park after Seeger. But, when approached on the subject, Pete wouldn’t hear of it. Fame was never Pete’s “ bag. ” Even when he was part of The Weavers, the most famous vocal group in America, he was an uncomfortable celebrity.

Pete Seeger was a true activist, in the purest sense of the word. Music just happened to be his weapon of choice. He never lost sight of his goals. And he never relented until they were achieved.

In his later years Pete Seeger called himself a “ communist ” with a small “ c. ” Among Pete’ s many initiatives to benefit the community was the annual Newburgh to Beacon river swim, intended to raise money for a children’s pool in the Hudson.

And that idea, of course, would have been unthinkable one or two short decades prior without Pete Seeger’s Clearwater crusade to clean up the Hudson- A battle which he won against such a Goliath of an antagonist as GE.

Before Pete and his allies, took on the industrial colossus and got it to clean up the pollutants and PVCs which it had been pouring into the river for decades, no one in their mind would have thought of immersing themselves in the filthy Hudson for as much as a minute !

Now, thanks largely to Pete Seeger and his volunteer army, the mighty river was once again swimmable. And sturgeons, long thought extinct, reappeared.

Every year Pete would be on the Newburgh waterfront to see the swimmers off for the annual swim with his reedy rendition of Woodie Guthrie’s classic: “ This land is your land, this land is my land..” accompanying himself on his venerable five string banjo. I was one of those swimmers and year after year I listened teary eyed as the words and the music touched my soul.

I had the good fortune of attending Pete Seeger’s ninetieth birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden. Bruce Springsteen introduced Pete thusly: “ Pete Seeger is like your typical average old granddad, ” said the Boss. Then, after a pause: “ That is, if your old granddad kicks ass ! ”

But there is one memory of Pete Seeger that will stay with me when all the others have begun to fade. It was during the Iraq war under the lesser Bush. It was the time of the Abu Ghraib prison and the torture scandals-our nadir as a nation since the Viet Nam war.

On a bleak winter’s day, I was driving along Rte. 9 and there at the intersection with Rte. 52 , in ankle deep snow was Pete Seeger, Toshi and a small band of fellow activists, waving placards protesting the war.

Pete and Toshi were already in their eighties. They could have stayed comfortably warm at home by the fire in their log cabin on the hill overlooking their beloved Hudson, and no one could have uttered a word of reproach.

At the time of the McCarthy witchhunts and for decades afterwards, when Pete Seeger was blacklisted and couldn’t get work, the Seegers had already suffered far more than most of us ever do for the exercise of their conscience.

But no, there they were, already frail the two of them, freezing their thin little butts off, because their country, having lost its moral compass, needed them once again.

Thank you, Pete. Thank you Toshi. From the heart.

You never preached or sermonized. You taught by example.

You were twin beacons of light in our darkest nights.

You saw beyond the country we’ve become. And you never ceased believing in the country we can be.

You have planted seeds that unborn generations will reap. As it is your beloved Hudson Valley is a already, thanks to your efforts, a better place than when you found it.

You, Pete and Toshi Seeger, were how true Patriots Act !

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Comment by Ben Royce on January 30, 2014 at 11:17pm

well said

good read, thank you

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