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.”