Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Less Tanks, More Apple Pie: two encounters with Pete Seeger

There is something pure about an obituary: facts, garnished with quotes, sprinkled with commonly held assumptions about the obituated's influence, and when it is a non-operatic singer in question, most to the point is how Bob Dylan was influenced, though to be sure, the phrase "influenced Bob Dylan" is all that can be said because who the hell really knows.

We were all influenced by Pete Seeger. He was famous. That's what fame means, an influence for better or worse. When I made a feint for a guitar once, my brother Bill said with an angry sneer "You are not going to sing that Pete Seeger stuff?"

Remembrances of the just dead is a tricky genre since it usually winds up more about the rememberer than the remembered. On the CBS morning news show they showed an interview Charlie Rose did with Pete Seeger in the 1980s and immediately afterwards Rose's colleagues remarked about how good he, Charlie Rose, looked and sounded in the interview.

Pete made people look good and feel good. He was a singer who liked people, a rare bird when you think deeply about it.

Leslie and I had two run ins with Pete because Leslie was invited to Nicaragua for the Third Anniversary of the Sandinista Triumph and neither one of us spoke Spanish good enough to get by. Leslie was making a mural for the foreign minister Miguel D'Escoto and worked at the art school, a dusty building or two close to Lake Managua. We heard that there was a teacher there who spoke very good English. We latched onto Mika.

Mika liked Leslie because she was a good artist and hard worker, and, strangely, she liked me because I was content to louge around reading poetry and threatening to write some while Leslie worked. I think she was burned out by being around macho Latinos jealous of her competence and impatient at her lack of deference to them. Anyway we all became friends.

When we left Nicaragua, Leslie explained to me that Mika was Pete Seeger's daughter. We went back to Nicaragua a few years later and while Mika prepared some shrimp for lunch for us and our sons (she now had a little house and pottery studio on the shores of Lake Managua), she sang the folksong "Mary Anne" which convinced me that she was Pete's daughter. Here's an after lunch photo:

Back in the states, we vacationed up in the St. Lawrence Valley and one summer decided to go down the Hudson valley on the way home and visit friends. That took us near Mika, who had just moved back to the US after breaking up with her Nicaragua companion. She was staying at her parents' place in Beacon. We arranged to have lunch with her there.

The Seeger house is the beacon of Beacon, straight up a wooded hill just out of town. We drove a huge lime green 1976 Pontiac Electra

and as I gunned it up the hill, I hoped that if Pete were there that he had a secret love of gas guzzlers. Doubting that, I hoped that Pete wasn't there. Indeed, I expected he wouldn't be. He was famous after all. Why would he be at home?

But he was, and Mika wasn't there. Fortunately just out to get somethings in town.

It proved easy to explain yourself to the Seegers. Pete's wife Toshi more or less gave us the eye and left us alone. Pete put us at ease and didn't react to my apologies for the gas guzzler, only to say that some worse cars had roared up that hill. We had our 3 year old son Ottoleo with us. Mika's sister Teenya was there with her five year old son, who was still getting breast fed. Plus there was a young German woman just in from East Berlin.

We saw the sturdy modest (but famous) Seeger cabin but everyone except Toshi seemed to orient around a large table on a concrete slab. There was a separate house, we assumed for Teenya. And, I think, when she and her son Tao came back, Mika showed us hers and Toshi's kiln. There was a good view of the Hudson and the best place to get that view was where Pete chopped firewood.

Of course, Toshi was busy getting the food and while nothing seemed special lunch was clearly the main event up on the beacon of Beacon. The only bother was that the phone kept ringing. Toshi would get up from the table and answer it. Call for Pete. He'd get up and then come right back. He got about three calls and maybe missed five minutes of the lunch conversation, and missed none of the food. How many famous people can manage that trick?

I think he was tickled to have the guest from East Berlin. The wall was just down. We could join the conversation because just the year before thanks to our Austrian diplomat friend we got through Check Point Charlie without the required pass and motored to Sans Souci illegally and toured the museum and grounds.

The news of the day was national angst over whether we had enough tanks to manage another hot spot in the world. As we dug into apple pie which Pete explained was the greatest American invention, he offered the slogan for the day:

"We should send the world less tanks and more apple pies!"

We visited Mika again about 5 years later. She lived on a farm with her new husband in Rhode Island. We stopped in for lunch between seeing friends in Stonington and Boston.

The first thing that startled us about Mika's farmhouse was that it looked not unlike the house she had in Managua. No screens on the window. The second thing that startled us was that Mika wasn't there. The third thing was that Pete was there doing the dishes with Penny, Mika's adopted daughter, looking on.

It turned out he was there to sing at a fund raising event for a local cause. I began to wonder if Pete ever had lunch away from his family in a place like home. He was famous. People would pony up for any number of good causes to have lunch with him.

Anyway, dishes done, he, Leslie and I set about entertaining Ottoleo and Penny. We eventually turned to noise making instruments. Ottoleo had had piano and drum lessons. We had bongos in the trunk. Penny seemed keen to pound on a little guitar. I tried to frame a memory for Ottoleo of his playing music, maybe even singing, with Pete Seeger. I reminded Ottoleo of "In the Jungle" and "Put Down the Ducky" which elicited no great sparks of creativity. We always played a CD of Weaver's songs in the car. Pete fondly recalled how over produced they were. Pete did sing and play the banjo. I took a lousy photo.

Then Mika, Toshi and another little girl arrived with the fixings for lunch

I got the impression that Pete enjoyed our company at lunch at Mika's house for reasons other than his fondness for people. Mika's husband, a retired engineer, never got off his tractor to join his illustrious father-in-law for lunch. Imagine for a moment that there was someone in your spouse's family who had a endless knack for spouting upbeat optimism.... maybe you'd miss a lunch or two

We all pitched in to clear and clean the dishes, done so quickly that I have no idea if I can brag that I cleared Pete's plate off the table or he cleared mine. Then we went to the shop in town where Mika sold her pottery. This time the lunch conversation was all about vegetables.

But Pete's brief outburst on the banjo and children's song I can't remember solidified my ideas of what made him a great folksinger. To me, it always sounds like he has the jump on the song he is singing. Most banjo players I've known avoid singing at all. The banjo is all over any song in an instance. 

I had a brief  acquaintance with Pete's half brother Mike Seeger and he seemed to sing while playing the banjo in the opposite way that Pete did, a sort of lagging growl which I think was a honest imitation of how banjo pickers in the mountains where Mike lived sang.

Pete's song always has a slight jump on the accompaniment, and to me that has two virtues: keeps me awake and gives me the, usually wrong,  impression that I also know the song. Maybe that's why Pete had such a knack for getting everyone to sing,

And maybe that's why he was such a good communist. You can call a famous man who does the dishes and has a passion for lunch at home with guests either a small "d" democrat or a small "c" communist. Pete was a communist because he was out in front of every song and bringing us out there altogether. 

Your small "d" democrat is a nice enough fellow and certainly with him no feathers are going to ruffled but you won't come away with that delirious illusion that there's a better song and soon we'll all be singing it.

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