Pete Seeger died in New York on Jan. 27.
I met Pete 25 years ago at the Bread and Roses festival in Lawrence, where I was part of the volunteer staff. The festival celebrates labor, with the theme of that historic 1912 strike in the mill city. Here was the legend of folk singing, but one unassuming man. We chatted about the day, the strike, the Clearwater, his boat which he used as a floating fundraiser to clean the Hudson River. I told him about my grandfather, a teamster for the Essex Company, before that term was used by union. Then, Pete settled onto a small stage on Campagnone Common in the heart of downtown Lawrence. The weather was great that Labor Day, and the real beauty of the day was this clear voice that sang about labor issues.
John Corliss, the founding producer of the Bread and Roses festival, tells the story of how he got Pete to perform.
At the very start of the festival in the mid-1980s, John had written Pete asking him to join the celebration. Each time, Pete would write back himself, thank John, politely decline (scheduling issues), thank John for his efforts and wish him luck. Then, just after the 1988 festival, Pete said that he was sorry he hadn’t replied to John’s earlier invitation that year but that he would come the next year. In the spring of 1989, John wrote to Pete again and asked him how much he would like to be paid for his appearance. Pete wrote back. John picks up the story: “Can you believe that Pete asked me to go to the musician’s hall in Lawrence and find out what the scale (fee) for an appearance would be in Lawrence. That would be Pete’s fee. So, Pete Seeger drove from New York to Lawrence with his grandchild, gave a wonderful concert, stayed and talked with musicians and folks attending, and then drove home for $100.”
I think Pete had a good time that day and naturally you wanted to join in that joy. Of course, Pete led his audience in song, singing about Bread and Roses. Then, he asked another staffer to go to the main tent and get a box of bags, since something had caught his attention. The bags were handed out. Then Pete told the folks gazing up at him from their blankets that it was a beautiful cause that brought them all out, a beautiful day and a beautiful park. Please pick up the trash, he said, and help to keep it beautiful.
I remember two more of his signature songs sung that day about the working poor (John Henry), the nonworking poor (Rock Candy Mountain). I’m sure the rest of the concert was filled with his trademark populist Americana, gospel, simple songs commonly sung in the 19th and 20th centuries, tales of trains and cowboys; and of course his other signature songs of the cause, such as “We Shall Overcome.”
Back in the day, the Bread and Roses festival had a lot of great performers: Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, Livingston Taylor, Odetta, Tom Rush, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Pete Seeger was unique: He sang, he whistled, he yodeled and he showed why he was near the center of grassroots movement for peace, justice and equality.
Pete, you taught us this land is our land and that we shall overcome. So long, Pete, it’s been good to know you. Very, very good.
Dan Cahill is a third-generation Lawrencean. He is a consultant and currently lives in Providence.