Rick Levine Shares a Story about Pete Seeger
Rick Levine page
Sent to Cuke May 21, 2019
Pete Seeger would have turned 100 on May 3, 2019. There's an outfit called "The Rosenberg Fund for Children" who celebrated the day by putting up memories and anecdotes about Pete on their website. They invited me and I sent them the following which they posted to the site. (I checked with Blanche's daughter Trudy who says I've got the story right).
I grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, during the 1950s and '60s, and Pete Seeger was a revered icon to me. So it was a gift to meet him personally during the summer of 1963. I turned 14 that summer and Pete was the music director of a progressive summer camp I attended called Camp Webatuck. I was in the "work camp" section--we built a road and sang songs about the Spanish Civil War and the nobility of working with your hands. I'm guessing that Pete was more of an "honorary music advisor" in fact, because I don't remember seeing too much of him. And our "meeting" consisted in me looking at him with admiration--I think I got his autograph.
One evening we kids performed a choral piece we had prepared for Pete's ear, "The Ballad for Americans", by Earl Robinson.
"In '76 the sky was red,
thunder rumbling over-head.
Bad King George couldn't sleep in his bed.
And on that stormy morn
Old...Uncle Sam was born."
And Pete reciprocated. He had props with him--an axe, and a large log laid on its side. He sang a different Earl Robinson ballad, the one about Abraham Lincoln:
"A lonesome train...
(he swung the big axe) "THWACK!"
On a lonesome track...
Carried Abe Lincoln's...
A couple weeks after camp ended many of us kids found ways to get to the March on Washington on August 28. Of course Pete was there too, singing and making music.
A few years later, in 1968, I moved to the Zen Center in San Francisco and became good friends with Blanche Hartman and her family. Blanche would later become the first woman abbot of Zen Center. Her mother, born Esther Frank, lived in Berkeley and told me this story: She, Esther, had been married to Joe Gelders, a physics professor and hero of the progressive movement in Birmingham, Alabama. (See the detailed history in "The Hammer and the Hoe" by Robin D. G. Kelley). In the mid-1930s Joe Gelders founded the SCHW, The Southern Committee for Human Welfare. He had met personally with FDR and had the collaboration and active support of Eleanor Roosevelt in this endeavor. In 1938, give or take a year, Joe made a fund-raising trip to the north. In a Cambridge, Massachusetts coffee house he heard the teenaged Pete Seeger singing folk songs and chatted with him after the set. Joe offered that if Pete should find himself in the vicinity that he'd be a welcome guest at the Gelders' home in Birmingham. Pete showed up soon after. Esther said, "you know, that boy had one shirt, and every 3 or 4 days I'd go into his room while he slept. I'd give it a wash before it started smelling and return it in the morning."
At Esther's 80th birthday bash in 1979 Blanche showed me the kind and thoughtful telegram that just arrived, offering affectionate congratulations from Pete Seeger."
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