Sunday, 9 February 2014

Pete Seeger

He called me Lang for many years. Back in those antediluvian days when people communicated through letters, my scrawl turned the two “R’s” in Larry to a barely legible “N.” He addressed me with such authority I never had the gumption to point out the error of his ways.

            After all, he was Pete Seeger and I was barely off the boat. He seemed a bit like Mount Rushmore with a rare trace of Abraham Lincoln about him.

            I can’t even remember how I met the man. The East Village was a churning place at the time and I was introduced to many a radical by Brian Herron, grandson of James Connolly, and founder of the Irish Arts Center.

            Though Pete would have been considered a Leftist I don’t recall him ever saying anything the least ideological. It was more that he was on the side of the angels and you didn’t think twice about following him – or as he preferred marching shoulder to shoulder.

            He always seemed like a very solid island in a roiling ocean. He and that banjo of his were like a calm in the psychedelic musical storm that raged at the time.

            We were all aware of his past and how he had been shamelessly blacklisted. He may have suffered privately over this issue but he never betrayed the least self-interest or even a hint of self-pity. Once he touched your life you never forgot him. He was the embodiment of the Bobby Sands mantra – no one can do everything but everyone has their part to play. You couldn’t help but be moved by him.

            He once told me that what you leave out in music is more important than what you put in. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I mouthed to myself, for I was at the stage when throwing the kitchen sink in the mix made eminent sense.

            Given that he was one of the stern folk Nazis at Newport when he threatened to cut the power to the electric Bob Dylan on stage, he loved Turner & Kirwan of Wexford and our eclectic ways. He used to stand at the side of the stage and quizzically study us – a rare occurrence because he usually masked his thoughts with either a stern or mildly amused visage.

            During a sound-check at New York’s Town Hall he bounded onstage inquiring the whereabouts of our bagpiper. We though he had taken the bad acid and were about to put him on the right track until we discovered that he was referring to our moog synthesizer and the plaintive wails Pierce could coax from it. We were playing Traveling People at the time and he told us he would write straight away to his brother-in-law, Ewan McColl, and inform him of the miracle that was transposing his folk anthem.

            Later that night one of our Shure speakers toppled over and came within inches of decapitating him. It was probably my last chance to become a Right Wing hero. In typical Pete fashion he didn’t even acknowledge the crash as the audience leaped to their feet suspecting an FBI plot.

            He called me out of the blue some years back. We hadn’t spoken in an aeon but, as usual, there were no formalities. He wanted help in writing a play about George Washington and the occasion he refused the entreaties of his followers to declare himself king.

Pete felt this story had to be told as we were in a dangerous age of presidential power and overreach. Much as I loved the man, I didn’t have the time to go traipsing up to his house in the back of beyond, for Pete could be a very exacting and deliberative person.

            We never spoke again but I thought of him recently while mixing the final Black 47 CD. Some songs seemed to cry out for embellishment; then I remembered his “what’s left out is more important…” dictum. I played back the songs in question. Sure enough, everything was already there – and maybe too much of it.

            I went back to mixing. Pete Seeger had made my life easier and more understandable. I suspect he did that for a lot of people.

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