If anyone ever personified the accolade "living legend," it was Pete Seeger. He was a man for the ages, a living slice of Americana, ageless and seemingly immortal. And that is why learning of his death at age 94 was still such a shock.
Most of the world knew him, of course, as a folksinger. But to the locals in my Hudson Valley neck of the woods, he was known primarily as a social activist. I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Pete a couple of times. The first time was in the mid-70s, as part of a controversial effort to transform the national historic landmark Dutch Reformed Church in Newburgh, N.Y. into a performing arts center for the black community. This was during the time when that Hudson River city and other blighted urban areas nationwide were still reeling from racial and social unrest and when the Black Panthers were an active and activist presence in minority communities. In other words, a threat to the established order. So when a young African-American man named Curtis Stewart had the effrontery to take over a crumbling building and rename it the Hudson Valley Freedom Theater, it raised a lot of official hackles and derision and push-back from city fathers and poobahs.
And then Pete Seeger showed up to lend support, and the powers that be shut up for awhile. After another decade of legal wrangling and funding problems, title of the structure reverted to the city. Pete had a way of lending his voice to all kinds of causes, and they were usually the unpopular ones.
For example, during the Reagan era, he only sold ten tickets to his benefit concert for the homeless.
He was already well-known locally for his efforts to clean up the Hudson River, long unfishable because of pollution with PCBs. G.E. finally began removal of the toxic waste decades after they dumped it. Pete led the effort to pass the Clean Water Act. He built the sloop Clearwater and hosted generations of schoolchildren on a floating classroom, teaching them a love and respect for the environment.
It's probably fitting that one of his last public appearances was in a march with Occupy Wall Street after a concert in 2011.
The New York Times has a fine obituary here. And here's a great piece by the late Mike Levine.
Today I'm going to hunt down some of my old Weavers and Seeger solo albums and reinvigorate myself with the music of a fine giving man, a legend who can never really die.