A friend, a mentor, a guide: Folk singer, activist Pete Seeger touched lives of many
January 29, 2014
Eddie Falick was a young teen when his idol — noticing him mouthing along to his songs at the front of the stage — stopped and asked him to sing him a tune.
That was the start of a 60-year friendship between Falick and Pete Seeger, who died Monday at the age of 94.
As news of Seeger’s death spread Tuesday, Falick, now a Nevada County resident, said he found himself humming some of his works.
“To paraphrase Carl Sandburg,” Falick said, “When I hear America singing, I hear Pete Seeger.”
Seeger was an iconic figure in folk music who performed with the great minstrel Woody Guthrie in his younger days and wrote or co-wrote “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.”
Seeger was born in New York City on May 3, 1919, and said he fell in love with folk music when he was 16, at a music festival in North Carolina in 1935.
He learned the five-string banjo, an instrument he rescued from obscurity and played the rest of his life on a long-necked version of his own design. On the skin of Seeger’s banjo was the phrase, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” — a nod to his old pal Guthrie, who emblazoned his guitar with “This machine kills fascists.”
Dropping out of Harvard in 1938 after two years, Seeger hit the road, picking up folk tunes as he hitchhiked or hopped freights.
In 1940, with Guthrie and others, he was part of the Almanac Singers and performed benefits for disaster relief and other causes. He and Guthrie also toured migrant camps and union halls. He sang on overseas radio broadcasts for the Office of War Information early in World War II and entertained soldiers in the South Pacific.
With The Weavers, a quartet organized in 1948, Seeger helped set the stage for a national folk revival. The group churned out hit recordings of “Goodnight Irene,” “Tzena, Tzena” and “On Top of Old Smokey.”
Seeger also was credited with popularizing “We Shall Overcome,” which he printed in his publication “People’s Song” in 1948. He later said his only contribution to the anthem of the civil rights movement was changing the second word from “will” to “shall,” which he said “opens up the mouth better.”
Falick met Seeger in 1949, when he came up to Camp Juvenile, a summer camp in upstate New York, “to serenade us underprivileged kids from the Bronx,” Falick said, adding, “Most had never been out of the concrete jungle.”
Falick was a “pretty good tenor” who performed with a Jewish folksinging group, and had memorized dozens of Seeger’s songs.
“I was in awe of him,” Falick said.
As Seeger performed, Falick got up to the front of the stage and mouthed the words to every song.
“He stopped, looked at me and asked my name,” Falick said. “He said, Eddie, sing me a song.”
After a stutter or two, Falick started in on “Old Dan Tucker” at “the speed of sound.”
“He just quieted me down,” Falick said. “He said, you have to let your audience hear your words.”
The two struck up a friendship as Seeger continued to visit Falick’s summer camp, keeping in contact by letter. Falick sent Seeger a birthday card every year for 58 years, give or take.
“Any time he said anything to me, I remembered it for all time,” Falick said. “He was my friend, my mentor, my guide in life.”
When Falick was just 15, he was part of a group that included Seeger when they marched in Washington, D.C., to protest McCarthy, he said, calling that march “one of my proudest moments.
“At one time, we were close, because there was a very limited group that appreciated him,” Falick said. “Then he became so well-known worldwide. I was happy for him, that he got his message out to so many people.”
‘Rainbow Way’ recording drew Seeger’s interest
It was Seeger’s status as one of the primary revivers of American folk music that made him an icon in KVMR broadcaster Tenali Hrenak’s eyes — and the connection that brought the two men together nearly a decade ago.
Hrenak, who is a frequent guest host of “The Other Side” on KVMR, has spent more than 15 years gathering field recordings at Rainbow gatherings.
A fiddler he knew brought a version of “Wimoweh” — a South African song adapted and popularized by Seeger — to the Rainbow gatherings, calling it “Rainbow Way.”
In 2001, Hrenak recorded “Rainbow Way” at a gathering and put it on a compilation CD; to hear the song, go to http://ia700603.us.archive.org/2/items/2001_Rainbow_Idaho/2001_Rainbow_Idaho-Rainbow_Way.mp3.
“That original recording was very ramshackle,” Hrenak said, adding nearly 400 people were involved. “They were all musicians together in the moment. It’s five minutes of chaos that somehow holds together.”
Several years later, the fiddler gave Seeger a copy of the recording while traveling in New York, Hrenak said. “Pete really enjoyed it,” he said. “He thought it was great.”
Seeger apparently was working on an autobiography with a companion CD, and wanted to use the song, Hrenak said, adding that the autobiography was never published, as far as he knows.
“I had gone to bed early, I had to work the next day,” he said. “About 9 or 10 p.m., I was woken up by a phone call … It took a few minutes for me to realize I was talking to this folk icon. It became an hour-long conversation.”
The two exchanged phone numbers and talked three or four more times over the course of that year.
“He started telling me crazy stories of hitchhiking around the country with Woody Guthrie, running around with the Lomax family, recording with them.” Hrenak said.
One exchange has stuck with Hrenak all these years.
“As we were talking, he was sharing great old stories, and he said, ‘Despite what you hear in the news, all the bad stories, all the negativity, when Woody and I were … playing in the streets, it took us many trains and many miles to go meet other people who were doing positive things in the world.’
“He told me, nowadays, there are hundreds of thousands of people doing positive, beautiful things.”
That would prove to be a theme for Seeger, when asked by the AP in 2008 to reflect on his legacy.
“Can’t prove a damn thing, but I look upon myself as old grandpa,” Seeger said. “There’s not dozens of people now doing what I try to do, not hundreds, but literally thousands. … The idea of using music to try to get the world together is now all over the place.”
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4229. With additional reporting from Associated Press writers Michael Hill, Chris Talbott, John Rogers and Mary Esch.
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