By Stephen J. Kotz
This Saturday at Christ Episcopal Church at 3 p.m., you are sponsoring a memorial sing-along to honor Pete and Toshi Seeger, who both died recently. What were their ties to Sag Harbor?
Pete was a great help in 1993 when he came to the Old Whalers’ Church and did a benefit concert for the Eastville Community Historical Society. What happened is when the lines of the historic district were drawn, they went across the street when they came to St. David’s AME Church, avoiding what was a traditionally black neighborhood. When I told Pete that, he said, “Let’s do a concert,” so we did. Lo and behold, the next year, when he came back to town for another fundraiser, Eastville was on all the historic tours.
This is a memorial for both Pete and Toshi, because without Toshi Seeger there would not have been a Pete Seeger. All his family would tell you that. She organized the Clearwater Festival. At its height it was attended by 30,000 people. During the ’50s, it was her idea that they would not talk to the administration at colleges but go straight to the student union: “Would you like Pete to come and do a concert? You do the promo, here’s the fee.” He’d be in and out, so Pete was working regularly when he was on the blacklist.
Where did you meet him?
I met him at a workshop for songwriting at Omega at Rhinebeck upstate in 1991. I was trying to get a chorus together that was going to be an interracial chorus of about a dozen people. When I told him, he said “You’re just the fellow I’ve been looking for.” Only he wanted 200 or 300 people. Six months later, though, Pete and I put together a quartet. I supplied myself and the soprano. He supplied the tenor and a baritone and six months later we sang at Carnegie Hall. We sang with him for years on short notice.
Why is Pete Seeger important?
Optimism. He had optimism that inspired 12,000 people to sign up to clean up the Hudson River. Integrity. He stood up for what he believed in even when faced with jail. Courage. He faced death threats. He told a story about a guy who came to him after a concert who told him “I came to this concert tonight to kill you.” They sat down and talked awhile and then they sang together. The guy told him “I want to thank you. You changed my life.”
He inspired, and this is not an exaggeration, millions of people.
Tell me about Seeger’s songs.
He was like an encyclopedia for song details. If you asked him for a specific song, it was like pressing the button on a tape recorder and he’d start telling, “Well in 1834, he brought this song to South Carolina” and he’d bring it all the way to the present, telling you who added what and when.
Even when he worked on a song, he always gave credit to everyone else. Take a song like “We Shall Overcome.” He changed “will” to “shall” because it sounded better to his Yankee ear. That’s how Pete worked. He would sing stuff that was around for 10, 20 years and he’d just change a word or two and tinker with it.
Who will be performing with you this weekend and what will you sing?
The Musical Suspects. Dan Koontz is the musical director at Christ Church. He plays the organ at the church, keyboards and a mean blues guitar. Bill Chaleff, the architect, plays guitar and his son, Ben, plays mandolin and bass. And I sing.
We’ll do mostly songs that people know from Pete singing them. “We Shall Overcome,” “Down by the Riverside,” “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” “Deportee.” We are not only encouraging, but demanding, that people sing along. You’ll be put in irons if you don’t sing along.