Folk icon Pete Seeger marks milestone anniversary
Published: Wednesday, May 08, 2013
SCHENECTADY — “Somewhere along the way, Pete Seeger learned how to make mulch out of a bucket of spit,” said Margie Rosenkranz of the Eighth Step, which will present the folk icon with his sister, Peggy, as part of the organization’s 45th anniversary Sunday on the main stage at Proctors.
For decades, Rosenkranz has struggled with how to best present folk music to the general public. Do you even call the music “folk?” Is the Eighth Step a “coffeehouse,” especially when it’s staging an event like Sunday’s in a theater that holds almost 3,000 people?
Folk music, for centuries, has presented the hopes, wishes and wisdom of common people. “(Folk musicians) try to make a living on a sub-industrial level, so they don’t get into censorship,” Rosenkranz explained. “You want to write what you want to write and have an audience sing it to.”
Seeger said it this way: “People with money can break up any big thing they want. I’m sure that’s how they broke up the Socialist Party and the Communist Party and Lord knows what else. But what are the people with money going to do about millions of small organizations? They don’t know where to start. They break up three of them, and four more like them spring up.” Seeger has been singing at “small organizations” while thinking globally and acting locally for more than 70 years.
He celebrated his 94th birthday May 3. When I asked him how he was, he said, “My standard answer is if I could remember, I’d tell you.” He’s the man who made “We Shall Overcome” the mantra of the civil rights movement. He brought focus to the effort to clean up the Hudson River with the sloop Clearwater, He has stood tall for the common man from the moment he first stepped on the stage. Humble to the point of being mistaken for naïve, Seeger does not consider himself a singer, but rather a song leader, and can’t believe he has the power to “fill an old movie theater with 2,000 people.”
Rosenkranz first presented Seeger at a 1984 fundraiser at Page Hall and has worked with him at the Clearwater Festival, Pumpkin Sail and Eighth Step ever since. She remembers the first time this emperor of folk met the late, local Caffè Lena queen, Lena Spencer, in the 1980s. “He walked over to Lena and took her hand, bowed and said, ‘Good afternoon, my lady.” Lena looked him squarely in the eye and said imperiously, “Hello, Peter,” Rosenkranz recalled.
Seeger today spins off anecdotes like football fans eat wings. He told me one story about African American singer Paul Robeson’s 1949 concert that ended with the KKK throwing rocks through the windows of concert-goers’ cars. Reflecting back on that incident, he said, “I’ve made a lot of stupid mistakes in my life, but at least I’m still alive, even though there was a thriving branch of the Ku Klux Klan only about three miles away from me. And I’ve often wondered why they didn’t come up and shoot me down or burn down my house or something, but I found out some members of the Ku Klux Klan had some family members who said, ‘You do what you want with Seeger and you’ll regret it. Everybody will be singing his Goddamn songs.’ ”
Seeger took several of those stones that landed inside his Jeep and put them into the fireplace he was building for his log cabin. “This (incident) was like an inoculation for America,” he says today. “You know when you get a needle in your arm, your arm gets a case of smallpox. The rest of your body gets alerted and does not get smallpox.”
He has a positive vision of the future, which promises to permeate this celebratory event Sunday.
“My mantra today is the agricultural revolution took thousands of years. The industrial revolution took hundreds of years, but the information revolution is only taking decades, and if we use it and use the brain God gave us, who knows what miracles may happen in the next few years.”
Pete and Peggy Seeger
Where: Eighth Step, Proctor’s Theater, 432 State St., Schenectady
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $24, $34 and $54; call (518) 434-1703 or go to www.8thstep.org