Legendary folk singer, activist Pete Seeger had deep Berkshire roots


Pete Seeger was born and raised in New York City, but his Berkshire connections ran deep.

His first visit to the Berkshires, according to his biographer, David Dunaway, was during the summer of 1938, when he took a bike trip throughout the eastern states.

But the most important connection was his close relationship with fellow folksinger Arlo Guthrie. Seeger had been close to Guthrie's father, folk giant Woody Guthrie, whom Seeger met in 1940.

On his Facebook page today, Arlo Guthrie, a town of Washington resident, posted a message in which he recounted a meditative conversation he had with Seeger at about 9 p.m. on Monday night from his home in Florida.

"That's the great thing about thoughts and prayers -- you can go or be anywhere," Guthrie wrote. "I simply wanted him to know that I loved him dearly, like a father in some ways, a mentor in others and just as a dear friend a lot of the time. I'd grown up that way -- loving the Seegers -- Pete and Toshi and all their family."

Guthrie noted that he had been asked to write Seeger's obituary and was having trouble with it.

Seeger, Guthrie related, agreed that they would say something appropriate on the news. After sleep took him, at about 3 a.m., the calls and texts started coming in about Seeger's death.

" ‘Well, of course he passed away,' I'm telling everyone this morning," Guthrie wrote. ‘But that doesn't mean he's gone.' "

A longtime resident of New York's Hudson Valley, Seeger played at a number of venues in Berkshire County, including Tanglewood and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge; the former Music Inn in Lenox, the Dreamaway Lodge in Becket, Cole Field in Williamstown and the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center and Guthrie Center in Great Barrington.

Seeger, who went by his full name, Peter, at the beginning of his career, is known as much for his protest songs as his folk singing. He sung on behalf of immigration, women's rights, the ecology, job creation, responsible government, getting out of Vietnam, controlling the military budget, supporting revolutions in other countries and many other progressive themes.

A 1964 concert at Cole Field in Williamstown, for example, was held on behalf of the Hoosic River Citizens Environmental Protection Association, a group advocating cleaning up the Hoosic River and educating the public on other environmental issues.

That afternoon, he urged the crowd of about 1,200 to clean up the litter around them. An Eagle reporter noted that, following the show, the area was "nearly spotless."

He also founded Clearwater, a nonprofit agency that focuses on cleaning up the Hudson River, in 1966. At the time, Seeger announced plans to "build a boat to save the river." Back then, the Hudson was teeming with raw sewage, toxic chemicals and oil pollution and fish had largely disappeared. Seeger launched the Sloop Clearwater in 1969 -- a majestic 106-foot long replica vessel. He remained involved in the effort throughout his life.

"The time is now or we will not, I fear, have a future for the human race," Seeger had been known to say.

His concert at the Mahaiwe in 2001 featured Seeger and his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Rodriguez-Seeger's band, The Mammals, as well as other guests, including Arlo Guthrie.

He wrote or co-wrote an impressive number of now-legendary songs, including "If I Had A Hammer," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and many others.

"Whole careers were nearly built on Pete Seeger songs," said former Eagle pop music critic Seth Rogovoy in a 2001 column.

Alan Chartock, president and CEO fo WAMC, North East Public Radio, spent a good part of the day on the air, taking calls about Seeger's legacy, from the public and musicians -- including Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, and Natalie Merchant.

Chartock has been a fan since he first saw Seeger perform at a camp as a child during the 1950s, and became close with the Seegers in recent years.

He called Seeger "a good friend and a legendary musician."

Berkshire musician David Grover performed with Seeger for nearly a decade.

On tour in Phoenix, Grover reacted to Seeger's death.

"It's hard to take in -- losing him," Grover said. "His effect on me was immense, even before I played with him."

He said that Seeger was "the glue that kept everything together in folk music -- the reason and the message."

Grover described Seeger as an "incredibly courageous man," recalling his defiance before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee during the Joseph McCarthy years.

He was convicted on 10 counts of contempt of Congress, and sentenced to serve 10 years. The convictions were overturned in 1962. He never served any time, but he was also blacklisted from performing on television during the late 1950s and early 1960s as a result. But Grover said it didn't faze Seeger much. He just kept touring, playing concerts at colleges and amphitheaters.

"He believed in putting himself on the line," Grover said, noting that Seeger was to be found at many hot spots of social unrest during the past six decades, including the South during the civil rights movement.

"He was still involved right to the end," Grover said.


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