[Editor’s note: It’s a privilege to here publish this kind, wise and unflinching remembrance of the recently-passed-on Pete Seeger from Bob Cohen (aka Cantor Bob), who knew him, sang with him, and for a time traveled with him.]
I am writing about my mentor and one-time hero of beloved memory, Pete Seeger, or as young women called him back in the day: “Pete’s eager!” I learned so much about the rich, humorous, plaintive, and energetic repertoire of the folks of the U.S.A. and also all over the world from Pete. And I learned from him how to get people to sing sitting under his Adam’s apple at Carnegie Hall or at a hootenanny on the Upper West Side of NYC.
Pete always used humor. He would say: “If you sing a wrong note call it harmony!” His banjo was like a magic wand that got even the grouchy to exhale a rousing chorus, be it: “We Shall Overcome” or “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain When She Comes”—both based on Black Gospel songs.
I first heard Pete as I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s and the folk revival was starting on its way. Charity Bailey, our music teacher at the Little Red School House, had filled us for years with the songs of railroad workers, sailors, farmers, and prisoners—from “Drill Ye Terriers, Drill” to “The Midnight Special.” It was quite a distance away from the old school songs such as “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes” and “Home Sweet Home” tho I still love those old-fashioned passionate love songs. Pete was on the radio and on records (78 rpm discs) and sang at our school at many an assembly.
In high school (Elisabeth Irwin High—part of the Little Red Schoolhouse), I formed a group with Peter Eliscu (son of Edward Eliscu, Tin Pan Alley lyricist who made a fortune out of one or two songs—”It’s Gonna Be a Great Day” and “Without a Song”—oy how I love to name plop!) and we sang with Pete on the stage of Carnegie Hall. We sang a lovely Ecuadorian song about a horse, “Mi Caballo Blanco,” and I just can’t remember what we sang with Pete, but standing beside him and singing out reminds me of the time I did so with Debbie Friedman (of beloved memory) at the Bardavon back a decade, singing her very inspiring setting of the Psalm 150 “Halleluyah” (which we sing at every Bnei Mitzvah) like I was rising up off the stage to a heaven filled with joy and glory.
Pete believed, as do I, that everyone could sing. Tho I am sure he heard, as have I, from many who insist they cannot. As the saying goes, “If you can talk you can sing.” His focus was on getting all to join in. He loved the songs of foreign lands and I learned many from him. When I am with someone from another country I usually can pipe up a tune that they are amazed anyone (in this country) knows—from Korea to Serbia to Germany—well, just put me to the test! His group, The Weavers, made popular hits of an Israeli army song: “Tzena, Tzena” and from them I learned an early pioneer Israeli song: “Artsa Alinu.”
I wrote earlier that Pete was my “one time hero.” I grew up worshiping (that’s where the problem starts) the same world changers: Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, that he and so many Americans on the Left did. And these heroes included their American Communist counterparts. Lenin called us “useful idiots” and right he was. The famous essayist David Bell (“End of Ideology”) wrote that everyone left the Left at their own time of disillusionment. His was at the Kronstadt sailors mutiny (1921) against the new Soviet government, when Trotsky called for the slaughter of the sailors. Other folk’s “Kronstadt” came later. Mine in 1956 with the Khrushchev Revelations which revealed some of the horrors of Stalin’s dictatorship. For Pete it seemed to take a much longer time—a half century after Stalin’s death he wrote a sad-mad blues about Uncle Joseph. He visited the Soviet Union a number of times and toward the end of his life he remarked to my high school buddy, Ron Radosh, that maybe when he was there he should have gone to see the Gulags (as if they would have let him, or probably brought him to a Terezin-like Potemkin Village set up, as they did with Henry Wallace who thought all the slaves were just hard working, happy-go-lucky Russians).
My own further learning took place when I went to prison and learned from the very loving aid of Rabbi Aryeh Alpern and Rabbi Jonathan Eichhorn. I learned that to worship human beings was not only a sin, but could be very dangerous. I started to learn the beauties and truths of Judaism, and where blind faith can lead.
Pete and his comrade Paul Robeson, the great bass singer and actor, touted the Soviet Union as a workers’ paradise—the future for all the world. That they (we) were horribly mistaken is now obvious. What is not so plain is what they and their artistic colleagues might have done to alter even in a miniscule way the slaughter of so many innocents. Perhaps nothing—but had they stood on stages all over the West, and with their great popularity, described what was really happening behind the Iron Curtain, read the poems and essays of the dissenters, called for protests as they did against the U.S.A. in the Cold War, might even a mad man like Joseph Stalin and his henchmen been halted even a bit? even spared one life? Robeson knew that the Jewish Communist poet Itzik Pfeffer was going to be murdered—but said nothing because, as he told his son, when he returned from the U.S.S.R., he didn’t want to give Capitalist America the satisfaction. One of the negative aspects of the Left’s worship of Communism was its hatred of America mixed up with it’s love of “the people.” As Prof. Rev. Bruce Chilton said to me the other day, Stalin wanted to create a “new man” but the “new man” was tragically a dead man.
Pete, and many, not only worshiped the Communist leaders, but worshiped “the masses,” “the workers,” also blindly—so that just like Leon Trotsky back in the 1920s taking the side of the Arabs against the early Jewish pioneers, his sympathy for the Palestinians drove him to extremes—Pete would not enter the Israeli part of Jerusalem. His biographer, David King Dunaway says that once he punched a hole through the wall in anger at what he said the Israelis had done to the Palestinians. Yes, of course, there is much to criticize on both sides, but again I refer to the blind faith that refuses to see gray areas, complications, contradictions, and many times the self-destructive faults of those one is championing.
I had the honor of driving Pete around Mississippi in the Freedom summer of 1964. He stretched out in the back of the car wondering what songs of his the folks down South would know. Trini Lopez had just made a hit out of Lee Hays’ (a Weaver) “If I Had a Hammer” and so Pete sang that at the newly formed Freedom Schools, and his great African folk tale, “Abiyoyo.”
I and Delores (Dee) Dixon along with Happy Traum and the late Gil Turner sang with Pete at many hoots. It was such a pleasure some 40 plus years later (who’s countin’) to sing once again with Dee at my (75th birthday) Blast, the “Hammer Song,” “I’m Gonna Lay Down My Sword and Shield” (words inspired by the Prophet Isaiah) and share with Dee the story telling of how her singing of “No More Auction Block For Me” (a pre-Civil War freedom song written by slaves) inspired Bob’s melody for his, perhaps, best known song: “Blowin’ In the Wind.”
I saw Pete one day down at the Rondout standing on the deck of the Clearwater. I called out to him and he said “Hey, aren’t you the guy who drove me around Mississippi?” We talked for a while and he invited me to a sing along near his home in Beacon.
The last time I saw Pete, in his 90s, he sang for a group I helped organize called “Save Them Now”—helping ex-cons have a place to live, get some education, and find education and work and not go back to prison. The fund raiser was held at the Pointe of Praise Church and was filled to the brim. I saw Pete backstage and greeted him and reminded him of some of our meetings back in the day. Pete said “Well, I’ve lost 50% of my memory, but I am still going strong.” And strong he was as he sang, perhaps his greatest self-written song, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” turned into a hit by the rock group The Byrds—of course, the lyrics by the Biblical sage Kohelet (in Greek: Ecclesiastes)—words that were my Dad’s favorite and that I spoke in the back seat of the hearse as I rode to his burial—everyone joined in in joy and love.
So, Pete, so long, it’s been good to know you—learning from both your insight into folks yetzer tov (the good loving part of people) and from your blindness to the yetzer harah (the evil that man is capable of). I hope that had you lived a bit longer you would have joined Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina (Pussy Riot) in their tour of the USA, having just been freed from prison by the (Raz) Putin dictator. The freedom, the spirit of joy, that you brought to so many and instilled so deeply in me, is still needed all around the world.
– Bob Cohen, 2014