One of the worst thing about being a radical lefty back in the 50’s and 60’s was the paranoia and mistrust generated by being constantly surveilled by the Feds and the various local red squads. (No, it didn’t start with 9/11).
The best thing about being a lefty back then was that we were always singing. We sang at meetings, on picket lines, at rallies and, best of all, at summer camp in the country and winter hootenanies in the city.
Pete Seeger was always there, long and lean like a Giacometti sculpture come to life, his battle sword a long-necked Vega. From the first time I saw him when I was probably nine or ten, I was awed. And I’ve stayed that way ever since.
I bought my first banjo, a cheap Kay, because of Pete. I bought my second, a Paramount, because Pete’s book, a booklet really, on how to play the banjo introduced me to Earl Scruggs. Still today, when I pick up the instrument and get ready to play, the first tune that invariably comes out, as if by itself, is “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.”
It’s because of Pete that I went south to do the folk festivals. The best part of my trip with Dylan was joining voices with what became the Freedom Singers in Atlanta and the students at Tougaloo.
Pete, like my parents, was for a time a big C card-carrying communist. But he was Yankee wayback and my folks were foreign born Croats. In a home where English was a second language, I grew up thinking that reds most likely were foreign agents peddling an alien ideology. Pete, among others, taught me differently. He was probably the most patriotic American I had ever encountered. He was immersed and in love with the music, culture and history of his country. His politics, never harsh or accusatory, were always aimed at getting the people themselves to make their country better.
I’m lucky to have spent my 74 years in the time of two American civic saints. One of them, Ralph Nader, is still raising hell for all of us, whether we appreciate it or not. The other, Pete Seeger, left us on Monday, like his buddy Woody, bound for glory.