And what a gala affair it was, organized and hosted by the inimitable Pushkara (Sally Ashford) and her daughter, Wendy Ashford. You can imagine the musicians it drew from Seattle, Port Townsend, and over the mountains far away. They brought their instruments and played the folk music that Pete, who died last January at the age of 94, promoted, along with his original songs that have become part of America’s folk legacy…from Turn, Turn, Turn, to Where Have All The Flowers Gone to If I Had A Hammer.
The inimitable Pushkara
Pushkara and her family were active in the peace movement in the Northwest from the time of Woody Guthrie (Goin’ down the Road Feelin’ Bad and This Land Is Your Land, to name a few of his hit songs), when Pete was just a young man. She recorded numerous interviews in her charming Gypsy Wagon, from people who played a part in Pete’s long life. The colorful wagon was built as a symbol of peace and harmony, and resides next to her lovely home overlooking the cliffs above Puget Sound. I was one of those lucky people who got to hear Pushkar’s tales and added a few of my own from knowing Pete.
You can imagine my surprise when I walked into my husband’s office one day in 1971 to see a tall, lanky man sitting there, gesticulating adamantly. It was Pete Seeger, trying to convince us to manufacture steel drums, which were becoming all the rage in the schools as well as at pop concerts. We were the makers of Oscar Schmidt Autoharps and had often consulted with Pete’s half brother, Mike Seeger. We were heavily into folk music, rock (i.e. John Sebastian and The Lovin’ Spoonful) and music education. My husband shuddered at the thought of tuning those very loud Caribbean instruments and said it would be impossible to add this to his already overflowing compliment of folk instruments, including dulcimers, and a full range of Orff percussion. Pete was charming, but determined. He didn’t want to give up. The next time I saw him I was on 8th Avenue just coming out of a phone booth (anybody remember phone booths?) and he grabbed my arm and said, “Oh, Meg, I’ve just returned from Russia and do you know that those people love the steel drum. I even saw some musicians playing them in the snow.” Now I ask you…what are your chances of bumping into Pete Seeger on 8th Avenue on a cold winter day? His enthusiasm was, as always, infectious, and left me smiling and shaking my head at the sheer energy of the man.
Another story I related was my chance meeting with Pete’s mother at an AAUW meeting in Miami in 1959. I had just had my fourth child and was eager to speak to adults after tending four children 24/7. I sat down next to a lovely white-haired lady and somehow we started talking about camping and hiking, something we both enjoyed. She said that she and her husband had wanted to show their children the country and live a simple life while researching the music of various parts of America. He was a Harvard-educated musicologist. She a concert violinist. I listened with awe as she described this experiment in bare bones living. They were precursors of the people who live in RV’s and move from place to place. Each child had a fork, spoon, knife, cup, and plate, and was responsible for caring for them and their few possessions. They communed with the outdoors and loved nature and music. “We wanted our children to live close to nature and appreciate its beauty,” she said. “You may know of one of my sons. He’s a folk singer. Pete Seeger.” It was such a modest, offhand remark. If only she had lived to see the impact this son had had on the America she so loved. What surprised me after we had been talking for an hour is that she thanked me profusely for listening to her. “Most young people would not be interested in the stories of an old lady,” she said. I told her that I was fascinated and only hoped my life would be as eventful and useful as hers as I grew older.
Here is a smattering of the many musicians who came to the Deer Lagoon Grange in Langley on March 30th to honor Pete.