Our culture writer, Sparrow, was on hand when Pete Seeger gave a memorable concert in Woodstock, New York

 
Pete Seeger at age 88 photographed on 6-16-07 at the Clearwater Festival 2007 by Anthony Pepitone

 

Pete Seeger played at the Bearsville Theatre, outside Woodstock, New York, on March 17 (St. Patrick's Day), 2012. He was then 92 years old. His sister Peggy, his junior by 16 years, performed with him. They began with "Careless Love":


I loved my mama and my pappy, too.
I loved my mama and my pappy, too.
I loved my mama and my pappy, too --
Left them both to be with you.

They had no set list, and usually alternated songs. Early in the show, Pete sang "Turn, Turn, Turn." ("This is taken from a book that has traveled all over the world, partly because of the beautiful translation which was made about 500 years ago," Pete said, of the King James Bible.)

Pete was happiest singing funny rural duets: "There's a Hole in the Bucket" and "You Blind Fool." Here is the second verse of "You Blind Fool":

I came home the second night,
Drunk as I could be,
And there was a hat on the hat rack,
Where my hat ought to be!

I said to my wife, my pretty little wife,
"Explain this thing to me.
Why's there a hat on the hat rack
Where my hat ought to be?"

Then Peggy sang:

You blind fool, you silly fool,
Can't you plainly see --
It's nothing but a chamber pot
My mother sent to me?

Pete replied, bewildered:

I've traveled this whole world over,
Ten thousand miles or more,
But a JB Stetson chamberpot
I've never seen before!

In each verse, as Pete declared his drunkenness, he slurred the words with great relish. (Between verses, Peggy noted that he's a teetotaler.) I've never seen Seeger so funny!

Pete told the story of writing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" on a plane to Oberlin -- a group of students had arranged a concert at Oberlin College. "They said they couldn't pay me any money, but they had an auditorium that would hold a couple hundred people, and they thought they could pass the hat and pay for my plane fare." A tune had been going through his mind, but he couldn't remember where it came from. (Later, Pete realized it was a humorous Irish song that he'd slowed down.)

Where have all the young girls gone?
Long time passing.
Where have all the young girls gone?
Long time ago.

Where have all the young girls gone?
Gone to young men, everyone.
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

At the beginning of "Take It From Dr. King," Pete stumbled. "I forgot the words to my own song," he said bemusedly. "Then make it up again!" Peggy suggested. And he did. The chorus (which we all sang) is:

Don't say it can't be done.
The battle's just begun;
Take it from Dr. King
You too can learn to sing --
So drop the gun!

I've never heard an audience sing so strongly and proudly at a Pete Seeger show. Complex harmonies emerged, effortlessly, from our mouths. "Take It From Dr. King" has a strange rising melody, covering an octave. "That song is quite unusual musically," Peggy observed. "How did you write it?"

"I had this run in my mind," Pete said, playing six notes on the banjo. "I wanted to put it in a song, but I didn't know what to do with it. Should I put it at the beginning of a verse? Should I put it between the verses? Finally, I came up with this solution."

He explained how Lee Hays -- whom he called the "bass" in The Weavers, sent him the lyrics to "If I Had a Hammer." "His father was a Methodist minister, so he knew that you could make the lyrics to a hymn by just changing one word," Pete explained. "I put them to music, but I didn't do a very good job. Later, Peter, Paul and Mary came along and added a few notes and made it much better." And we all sang:

If I had a bell,
I'd ring it in the morning,
I'd ring it in the evening,
All over this land.

On "Twelve Gates to the City," I was struck by Pete's mastery of rhythm. He was one of the fathers of rock 'n roll. (Pete was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.) The way he forms his voice into a fist to punch out the lyrics would be stolen by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello -- in that order.

Rock 'n roll is the ultimate simplification of music. Pete's ringing three-note banjo solos anticipate the three-note solos of The Stranglers.

"I used to visit schoolrooms, and I would always begin by saying, 'Hello, cousins!'" Pete reminisced. Then he sang "We've All Been a Doubling":

We've all been a doubling,
A doubling, a doubling,
We've all been a doubling,
Down through the years...

It's about the population of the earth. At one point in the song, he explains that there would be a trillion people, mathematically, unless cousins married cousins -- which, of course, they did. So logically, we're all cousins. (I believe he wrote this song, but the Internet doesn't seem to know.)

"I've known a few geniuses in my life," Pete observed. "One of them was Woody Guthrie." He chose to perform "The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done" -- one of Woody's funniest songs:

I worked in the Garden of Eden, that was the year of 2,
Joined the apple pickers union, I always paid my due;
I'm the man that signed the contract to raise the rising sun --
And that was about the biggest thing that man has ever done!

Pete Seeger dropped out of Harvard in 1938 to hitchhike around with Woody. In the years since, Pete has sung so many songs that he's become a piece of American folklore himself, like Johnny Appleseed and Abraham Lincoln -- real men who became walking ideas. Pete resembles both of them, and not just them. Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, Joe Hill, Emma Goldman, Vachel Lindsay, Paul Robeson, the Freedom Riders -- a whole American history of ethical activism inhabits Pete's arms, legs and reedy voice. That's why we sing when he tells us to sing.

Wait a minute. Pete dropped out of Harvard to hitchhike with Woody Guthrie? Does that make him the "first hippie"? Maybe.

The last song was "My Home's Across the Smokey Mountains" (which Peggy and Pete changed to "Catskill Mountains"):

My home's across the Catskill Mountains,
My home's across the Catskill Mountains,
My home's across the Catskill Mountains,
And I'll never get to see you anymore.

Oh, where's that silver ring I gave you?
Oh, where's that silver ring I gave you?
Oh, where's that silver ring I gave you?
And I'll never get to see you anymore.

Like a noble samurai warrior bowing to his prince, Pete Seeger was bidding his audience farewell.