- | Courant Staff Writer
- May 11, 2008
AVON — – Before he stood up to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, joined the civil rights movement and led the cleanup of the Hudson River, and even before he picked up a five-stringed banjo and spearheaded the revival of American folk music, Pete Seeger was a gangly scholarship student at Avon Old Farms School.
On Saturday, Seeger, Class of 1936, returned to the campus of the boys’ boarding school to collect an award and sing a song.
“I’m speechless,” he said upon receiving the school’s first Distinguished Alumnus award. Noting that he is “famous for talking and talking on end,” Seeger, now nearly 90, said he was overcome with gratitude and emotion.
Then he grabbed a banjo and launched into a song. It wasn’t one of his classics, such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “If I Had a Hammer” or “Turn, Turn, Turn,” but rather a relatively new composition that he wrote after 9/11.
Seeger encouraged the audience to join him, reciting the lyrics before singing: “Don’t say it can’t be done. The battle’s just begun. Take it from Dr. King, you too can learn to sing. So drop the gun.”
The crowd, which included scores of Avon Old Farms students in rumpled khakis and navy blazers adorned with the school’s crest, enthusiastically joined in. Seeger, looking strong and rugged, wore blue jeans and a denim jacket and was accompanied on stage by one of his daughters.
In his three years at the school, Seeger acted in “Hamlet” and “Saint Joan” by George Bernard Shaw. “At 13, I played the female parts, with my hair curled and falsies,” he told New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson in a profile published in 2006. After Avon, Seeger attended Harvard, but left after two years.
Seeger has received a number of accolades recently. He was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 and, in 1994, was feted by President Clinton at the Kennedy Center.
“Pete Seeger has changed millions of lives,” said Art Custer, chairman of the history department at Avon Old Farms. In addition to presenting him with the alumnus award, the school dedicated a tree — a stately European beech that grows just outside the performing arts center — in his honor.
Seeger’s gutsy stand against his congressional inquisitors during the McCarthy era is enough to ensure that he be remembered as a “great American,” Custer said.
The students seemed to grasp that they were in the presence of an American icon, although some of them may have been a bit unclear about the exact details of Seeger’s multifaceted career as musician, political activist, civil rights protester and environmentalist.
Nick Biekert, a junior from Avon, knew that Bruce Springsteen recently recorded an album of Seeger’s songs. Ford St. John, a junior from Canton, knew that Seeger was active in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era.
“He’s a good role model,” St. John said. “Everyone is really focused on sports here. … Here’s someone else who did something great.”