22. Pete Seeger

“Are you rolling, Gene?”

Pete Seeger has been my close personal friend and object of my admiration since 1945 – 66 years at this writing in 2011…

Pete is so well-known that I don’t need to waste words trying to explain his idealistic view of the world, his dedication to spreading American folk song, and how he steadfastly broke through political barriers to reach out and inspire millions of people. During the early years of our friendship, Pete was struggling through severely challenging professional times. The most financially rewarding project of his career as lead singer of The Weavers, the #1 recording group of the early 1950s, was torched by McCarthyism.

Back in 1945, Pete and his then new wife Toshi, had shown up at our Hollywood bungalow, Pete wearing stage makeup, and with his ever-present banjo on his back. He’d been appearing in a small local theater, performing the singing narrator in a play called, “Dark Of The Moon.” He was brought to our house by his momentary manager, Austrian immigrant, Felix Landau, who had been a regular at our Friday night open-house jazz record sessions.

I was immediately bowled over by Pete’s music, but soon became aware of his idyllic belief in the idea of “communism” (socialism). It was 15 years before I was able to see at first hand that socialism can only exist as a totalitarian regime. There were a few local Communist Party members that who showed up at our Hollywood bungalow for our Friday night jazz record sessions. One of them induced Marie and I to attend a Party meeting.  The near-religious fervor of the discussions were so naïve and off-putting that we quickly opted out…  Never-the-less, it came out five years later, when I was in Detroit, that there were also CIA agent “jazz fans” attending our record sessions, and the mere fact that a couple of communists had been there, nearly destroyed my animation career, as you’ve already read in Chapter 13. (Jam Handy).

Our first son, Kim, was still in his crib when Pete first arrived and sang  “The Foolish Frog” to him. It was the first song Kim ever heard! 40 years later, I was finally able to get financing to make an animated film of it. It’s still marketed by WestonWoods/Scholastic. Here it is  on YouTube, if you want to see it and hear Pete sing it:

My first recording of that, and several of Pete’s other songs was on a simple acetate disc machine. It was the first sound recorder available on the home market at the end of WW2. Since then, I’ve recorded Pete hundreds of times with ever newer “machines”.

Pete sang for us over the years, in L.A, Beacon, Detroit, New York, and Prague. Wherever I lived, Pete would show up and engage us in songfests.

By 1964, Pete, with Toshi and three kids, hade embarked on a world tour, which included communist Czechoslovakia, where I’d already been working four years. As he’d been sidelined as a political pariah in mainstream America, he expected he’d get a bigtime welcome here, right? Wrong!  Here’s the irony: even though Pete may have felt himself to be a “communist,” the “Marxist-Leninist” Czechoslovak government was more suspicious of free-thinking “communists” who were not strict followers of the ever-shifting Soviet line, than they were of “capitalists,” who were their more clearly defined antagonists. “Diversionist” left-wingers were considered the greatest actual danger to their rule.

The great event of 1964 was Pete’s world tour, including concerts in Prague, giving me the opportunity to record his performances. The result was a 12" LP on the Czech Supraphon label, and this landmark CD edition. Pete made some comments in red on my CD copy. (In my album notes I hadn't mentioned that his son Danny was also with the family in Prague.)

For the first time ever, presenting the ENTIRE recording of Pete Seeger’s 1964 concert at the Prague ABC Theater – right here!

This was the label of the Czechoslovak LP disc, which carried my recordings of Pete’s 1964 Prague Performances. Note that they put my name on the label as the recordist! That was one of very few times tin those days hat an American was given a printed credit for any kind of Cezchoslovak productproduct!

This side of the record was the icing on the cake of Pete’s visit – Pete decided
to demonstrate the various instruments he had brought with him.
This unique demo-session can be enjoyed here!

A local Seeger fan, Zbyněk Macha, who worked for the Czechoslovak Ministry of Culture had managed to get permission from the authorities to allow Pete a series of concerts in the country, but cautiously limited him to low-key venues, and there was no radio or TV coverage of his visit.  The officials were afraid he’d be a loose-cannon, with his songs about freedom! So I was the only person with professional stereo equipment, able to privately record him. I sneaked my gear into Pete’s Prague theater concert, and Zbyněk Macha even got me into an unused radio studio with decent acoustics! Years later, my historic recordings were issued on a British FlyRight CD, “Pete Seeger in Prague 1964,” now a collectors’ item. Pete’s appearance to Prague directly changed Czech musical history! Look at this paragraph taken directly from Wikipedia:

 “Instruments were often an obstacle, especially the still largely unknown (5-string) banjo. The few musicians who tried to get by on tenor banjo and guitar banjo had little to inform their attempts at emulating what they heard on the radio, until Pete Seeger‘s 1964 Prague concert. Banjoist Marko Čermak was able to build the first Czech five-string banjo from photographs taken at this event. Soon after he started presenting this new style and instrument in performances with the group Greenhorns (Zelenáči).”

“The Greenhorns” were soon joined by “The Rangers,” “The Spiritual Quintet,” and many other English-language-named “Country & Western” groups, with young adherents finding every which way to get 5-string banjos into the country!

You will remember that the year 1964 was not only the beginning of the first glimmers of softening the communist regime, leading up to the 1968 “Velvet Revolution,” but also the peak of Beatlemania. The authorities soon realized that The Beatles were the greater danger to “Socialist Culture,” with their coded lyrics making clear references to drugs and other wild thoughts. They saw that what Pete Seeger had inspired was more wholesome and “communal.” Too late, the authorities realized that Pete’s ostracism from American media was useful to their own propaganda. So now they were sorry they did not officially record his concerts. They had to come to me, an American, for the right to issue my recordings on a Czech Supraphon LP. It was a great laugh!

Pete’s music suddenly was acceptable, because it seemed related to Czech “tramping” and folk songs.  By the merest chance it turned out that one of the pieces Pete played here, “The Cumberland Mountain Bear Chase,” turned out to have been an Appalachian adaptation of an old Czech Folksong, “Holka, Modrou Oka,” (“Blue-Eyed Girl”) So Pete had resonated, causing a huge torrent of American country music. There is still today a Czech radio station that plays nothing but what is called here “Country.”

The only thing the authorities struggled to keep under control was the language issue.  Even when hard-line communism quashed the 1989 “Velvet Revolution, “The Greenhorns” were still allowed to play, but they had to use a Czech language name for their group, (Zelenaci), and on the radio and recordings, to sing their lyrics in Czech. But they were still the same songs, with the same meanings, and played in pure Nashville or Appalachian style!  To this day the word “Country” means only American music. The Czech word for country music, (“Lidová”) means only traditional Czech music!

The latest book about Pete is titled, “The Power of Song,” and it’s widely believed here that the power of Pete Seeger’s songs eventually played a role in the defeat of socialism here, ironically the very thing that Pete had come, expecting to admire!

Recording Pete at every opportunity led me to always try to have the latest machine, from paper tape to plastic mylar tape recorders of many types, up to the Sony MiniDisc digital recorder.  I still cherish my personal Seeger recordings,  that I’d made over the years!

Whenever we could, in various seasons, Zdenka and I visited Pete and Toshi at their Hudson River mountaintop home. I did some minor roof work during its building, helped boil maple syrup, ate good food, and watched their three kids grow up, all the time listening to Pete play and sing.  He must be the most generous musician on the planet.  He would never arrive at our house without his banjo and/or 12-string guitar.  He always expected to play and be recorded. The only condition was that we sing with him, and he was pleased even if we – especially I – sang off-key!

But Pete Seeger’s dream of a better America and better world, was not based on Communist jargon, but was manifested in song, songs coming from the roots of America. To us, he was in no way subversive. Many, if not all of his ideas have taken root at last. He is no longer considered an enemy agent, but is honored with the Medal of Freedom.  His main dream of a “Socialist America” is still in the clouds of Shangri-la, but I greatly admire his purity of ideals and tenacity of purpose, toward a better world. He should never have been denounced for tirelessly working for peace, brotherhood and fairness, however elusive and unobtainable that might be in the real world. Pete said, “I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it!”

There was a time from the mid 1950a to 60s, when Pete was so depressed with the failure of his ideas take root, when he has been sidelined, vilified, demeaned… that he sunk into such a deep funk, that he wrote some words of self-criticism, outlining his own paradox:

“He sings old songs, but somehow his meanings are contemporary.

He tries to talk simply, but obviously has a good education, and has read widely.  He sings about poor people, though I doubt he is poor himself.

Altogether, he is a very professional amateur.  I would call him a phony, except that I think he is just another paradox.”

From the deep pits, Pete Seeger has at last been elevated to Medal of Freedom winner; respected, almost revered.  Streets, maybe even towns may one day be named after him. But have any of his basic ideas been actually adopted?  Has he actually brought reason, brotherhood, equality to the world?  Is any of that actually possible?  In the history of the world, there is seeming moral progress, but we have to face the fact that idiocy, hatred, and wickedness continues to widely prevail. Does that nullify what Pete Seeger has accomplished?  Hardly. He has inspired millions.  We have all been enriched and instructed by his tireless endeavors.  We want to believe that “We Shall Overcome!”  I think that Pete has tempered his views, and is still seeking an answer, based on his innate belief in the basic goodness of all people!  And hey! Pete has, at least incrementally, changed the world!

Pete is one of the great communicators of our time, still dedicated at the age of 91! My most recent action with Pete was to request that he let us make a video of him greeting the 2009 MOFFOM festival of films about music, which was dedicated to him. He agreed, and we sent a European filmmaker, Birgit Staudt Cassis, with a camera and sound crew, to Pete’s home in Beacon, New York, to shoot a short greeting to the MOFFOM festival. I was pleased with the result, especially that Pete included a personal greeting to me!

This little short is a true Pete Seeger performance, climaxing with an amazing demonstration of wood chopping by this 91-year-old icon. His voice is gone, but as he proclaims, “I can still chop!”

I’ve been an intense fan as well as his personal friend from that day in 1945 when Pete first came to our house, I’ve been inspired by his music, his almost single-handed revival of interest in American folk music, and an inspiration to so many other musicians. He is one of the greatest American patriots of our time, and yet had to survive a hateful effort by American political dragons to destroy him.  I do believe he has been politically naïve in believing that socialism will bring equality and cultural richness to people. I have told him that my personal experience, more than any other of his friends, having lived for 30 years in a country ruled by communist-socialist conditions, is that such a totalitarian system cannot work.  He saw that first hand when he visited me in 1964 in the communist days of Czechoslovakia.

I know that Pete is constantly re-examining his views, still seeking an answer, based on his innate belief in the communality of all peoples.

For the full Pete Seeger story, how he really was and is, I refer you to the book, ”Pete Seeger: The Power of Song!” by Allen Winkler. It’s all there!

I took him around Prague, and were surprised , in spite of his low key official welcome, there were a few small posters here & there. The unusual spelling of his name is simply the Czech language possessive form of “With Pete Seeger.”

I led him to the, “Old-New” Synagog, rebuilt, in 1492!

Nearby is the incredible ancient Prague Ghetto cemetery, and below, Pete is inside the adjacent Pinkas Synagog , moved by the sight of its walls inscribed with the names of every one of the thousands of Jews that were transported to the Nazi concentration camps during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia from 1939 to 1945.

Lulka Kopečná snapped these shots of Zdenka and me with Pete inside his family’s hotel room.

During the 1960s, Pete used money he was able to make with his singing to buy a raw hillside forested lot, above the Hudson river near the small town of Beacon, New York. With the volunteer labor help of his many friends, he built a traditional American log cabin, as his family’s housing insurance against the constant blacklisting that drastically limited his ability to make a living.

Pete was a musician and political activist, but he learned and practiced the work of a woodsman and a house builder.

Even I pitched in with some roof work during our visit from Prague.

This was the finished cabin, in which the Seeger family lived for years.

Later, with money earned from The Weavers’ success, and from song royalties, Pete was able to build a large “barn,” and additional housing on the Beacon hill property to house his growing kids, and constant stream of visitors.

On our frequent visits during the years we lived down river in Tarrytown, we were treated to plenty of good food, and song fests. In this 1960s photo is my youngest son, Seth, Pete’s daughter Mika, and Pete, sampling the outdoor snacks.

Behind Mika is Toshi’s father Takashi Ohta, called “Tapapa.”

Pete is playing a "fujara" - a Slovak shepherd's overtone flute, that I brought him from Czechoslovakia as a present. He jumped onto it as a challenge!

 

Toshi Ohta Seeger, the real power and organizer of Pete Seeger’s life, his bookings, travel, accommodations, everything!

Toshi with young daughter Tinya Seeger.

Still beautiful , Toshi is still in charge! She has always tempered the steel In Pete Seeger’s spine!

In 1997 we visited the Seegers with our buddy, Allen Swift, who was Toshi’s schoolmate in their youth! Zdenka took the photo below.

The Hudson river view from the Seeger property.

Every visit was a party as well as the chance to pitch in. Look at all those jars of maple syrup, harvested from trees right on the property!

Toshi, Pete and Zdenka on our visit in the late 1990s.

Zdenka ready to dig in while Toshi getting ready to serve up her usual bountiful and healthful meals.

At 90, Pete takes just a momentary rest beside his Beacon homemade fireplace.

I sent this drawing to Pete on his 90th birthday. I think he liked it, But I sensed that he was not really amused with caricatures of himself. Those in the mainstream press, in earlier days demonized him. My drawing, though light-hearted, was not in any way meant to be demeaning, but to show that Pete Seeger was part musician and part house builder!

Here’s a hilarious sendup of the early Deitch family by my genius son, Kim, recalling our off-center way-of-life when he was a kid. Kim’s drawing is packed with perceptive details. If you want to read the tiny lettering, you can click on the image and it will load, then you can also zoom in to really get down to the details. Note the obvious reference to our frequent guest – Pete Seeger, me playing my bongos, (I still do that!), our Siamese cats, and even my Kwakiutl Frog headpiece (NOT so foolish!). I still have it!  I suppose we were “Pinkos,” but surely a very pale shade of pink!

22 thoughts on “22. Pete Seeger

  1. A message received from Tinya Seeger, who you saw in her mother’s arms in one of the photos above. Gene

    Dear Gene,
    Finally I have gone to your Blog. I have not seen many pictures of my mother in the 1960s and I have only one or two pictures of my mother’s father, so I enjoyed looking at them all.
    And It was fun talking on Skype, we could do it when some family is visiting around the holidays or beginning of the new year if you want to.
    The original card you sent for my father’s 90th birthday, by the way, never arrived. It was lost by the post office, along with many other cards, including my sons wedding announcement, before reaching our mailbox.
    I showed Pop the one from the computer but he was rather busy at the time so I am afraid it didn’t get the attention it should have. I felt bad he didn’t really see it, and you didn’t know. Perhaps I should show it to him again…… My parents are doing well. My mother walks around a few hundred feet a day after her hip surgery, we are getting wood in so we can stay cozy for the winter.
    best
    Tinya

  2. I have fond memories of visiting Pete’s place. I was there when you brought him the enormous Czech shepherd’s flute. Man how his eyes lit up! Of course he is the one who taught me how to ice skate with those old fashioned “Hans Brinker” style strap on skates on the little pond out front of his cabin. When I tell people that story they always ask why I didn’t get him to teach me the banjo. It’s been a long time since I last saw him and one of the Hudson Sloop concerts. I think I was somewhere in my teens.

  3. Dear Gene, this is the first time I have ever posted on a blog! I just wanted to thank you for all the stories and music of Pete Seeger’s. He is the reason I became a musician. In the early ’50′s, my parents bought me a small child’s record player and a few records of folk singers (those were the years of the first LP’s; they were still small, the ’78 size) — Burl Ives, Sam Hinton, Woody Guthrie, and, of course, Pete Seeger. As I listen to “The Foolish Frog”, I’m taken again by that deep, gentle, velvety voice perfectly balanced with the twanging strings of the banjo. When I got my first guitar at age 8, it was Pete Seeger’s “Folksinger’s Guitar Guide” that taught my my first chords and strums, and later when I got a banjo, it was again his instruction book that taught me more than any teacher. In 1963 my father took me to a concert of Pete’s at Boston’s Jordan Hall, to which Pete had invited his brother Mike and his old-time string band, the New Lost City Ramblers. It was love at first sight. The old-time music, so soulful, so varied in harmonies and tone-colors (its later, flashier off-shoot, bluegrass, pales in comparison) inspired me not only by its sound, but by introducing me to the wisdom of simple folks down South. The guitar became an instrument of complex harmonies, of deep wooden resonance, of striking rhythms, and I could never leave that acoustic wonder for the more showy heights of the electric guitar. Now, almost 60 years after I first heard Pete on my tinny record player, and having recorded 9 CD’s with my Czech jazz partner, I still consider him the greatest influence on my guitar style, and on my conviction that making music is the most human thing we can do. And, as I conclude here, I just realized that two of the songs I was teaching, today, to my 20-student-strong beginning guitar class at the International School of Prague, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Down By the Riverside”, I learned from Pete, through that little record player, five decades ago. Thanks again, Gene, and Pete.
    Tony Ackerman, Prague

    • Tony, you’ve touched my heart! Such a letter, coming from such an artist as you, makes all the effort of “Roll The Credits!” much more than just “worthwhile,”
      but worth everything! Thank you. G

  4. Have been a big fan of yours since
    the late 40′s, Record Changer days.

    I produced Pete’s career retrospective
    for Sony/Legacy. A privilege & an honor
    for me.

    Pete and I had our 12-string guitars made
    by Stanley Francis of UK, at roughly the
    same time. [1965] Pete told me someone
    sat on his and totally destroyed it. Mine
    remains intact. I see where Pete is
    endorsing a new line of 6 & 12-string guitars,
    based on the design of the Francis!!

    May you and Pete “wave” forever!

    Larry Cohn

    • Mom & I were big fans of so-called “Eskimo” art. I wish I could say that I discovered this headpiece while rooting around a Kwakiutl archaological site, Kim, but the truth is that about the time of my birthday in the early 1950s when we were living in Hastings-on-Hudson, we saw this wooden frog in the window of a Manhattan antique shop. It was expensive even then, a few hundred bucks, but I was doing well at UPA, and I really fell for this piece, so we splurged on it as a self-birthday present. During that time also, Mom took a train to Canada and brought back a boxful of small “Eskimo’ stone carvings. I wish I still had a few of those! I have no idea that these things are worth today, but I just enjoy looking at this frog!

  5. Hi! I’m sorry, I understand this is probably the wrong place to post this, but I cannot seem to find an email address where I might contact you, Mr. Deitch. I’m helping contribute information to a historical animation database, and I was wondering if you could help me answer some questions about an animator you worked with. Connie Rasinski? I’d appreciate any input you have to offer, thankyou so much for taking the time to read this!
    My email: n0ireclipse@yahoo.com

    • Hi Jessica, I’ve written about Connie Rasinski and other Terrytoons colleagues in my online book, “How To Succeed in Animation,” in the chapter about Terrytoons. You can access it at awn.com/genedeitch

      • It’s strange about that page. I turned in a seven page story and my editor said he would use it only if I added an epilogue that tied it into my past personal life. I did the “Little Kimbo” page under protest. But the funny, [peculiar] part of it is, now that’s the only page of the story I still like.

  6. At a guess (all I can do, as I’ve never met Pete Seeger) I think Pete is the kind of person who lives outside himself, always thinking of others. Seeing himself, even in caricature, brings him back to self-awareness, which can be a bit of a shock at the best of times.
    I couldn’t help but notice that in your drawing Pete resembles Farmer Al Falfa. Now there’s a Terrytoons character I would have liked you to take a shot at!

    • Well, in recent photos, you might say that Pete might look like Farmer Al Falfa, (look at the last photo above!), but it’s not a proper description of the man who recently needed two canes to march 20 blocks in upper Manhattan in support of the “99%” political equality he so fervently believes in!

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