Sometime in the late ’50s Pete Seeger appeared at Kaufman Union at the University of Minnesota, raising money for his defense against HCUA. I suppose someone could find the exact date, but I think I must have been four or five. It was packed–sardine room only. The organizers hadn’t expected that sort of turnout. Between sets, a few of us kids were brought up to sit on the grand piano off to the side near the “stage” to create a little breathing room. Seeger came out for his second set; I remember he had his banjo, which pleased me, because I always liked that better than when he played his 12-string. As he opened his mouth, I yelled out, “Hiya, Pete!” because it was so good to see an old friend–at least, I thought of him as an old friend because I’d been listening to his music all of my short life. Didn’t that make us friends? The whole room cracked up, and he turned and looked at me and grinned. I truly believe that was the origin of the joy I get in performing, in being the center of attention, in making a room laugh.
He was a Stalinist, and it showed more and more as time went on. You could see it in the way he did songs that carefully explained everything and drew their morals out plain as if the audience couldn’t be trusted to understand; you could see it in the way that, especially after his involvement with the Civil Rights movement, he would gladly hop onto any cause the pseudo-left embraced, the more middle-class the better. It is sadly appropriate that the two of his obituaries I’ve read so far entirely omit the word “union,” even though union songs (The Almanac Singers, also featuring Woody) were really what launched him, and were a huge part of his body of work.
I kind of don’t care about any of that. It wasn’t until I started playing banjo myself that I realized what an artist he was with the instrument. Like another of my formative musicians, Merle Travis, the instrumental work was always understated; it was support for the song. He wanted you to enjoy the song, not think about how great a musician he was. This is an approach to art that has become vital to me. And while we’re speaking of underestimating, don’t forget the Weavers. For many, they were the introduction to folk music. Then, over time, you’d discover other “authentic” folk artists and start kind of mentally poo-pooing the Weavers with terms like, “Folk Pasteurizers.” And then, one day, years and years later, you’d happen to pick up an old Weavers album, put it on, and go, “Holy fuck! I had no idea how good these guys were!”
He was 94 years old. In his 94 years, he made many people happy. I was one of them.