PORTLAND — In the fall of 1954, Pete Seeger began his long-running column “Appleseeds” in Sing Out! Magazine. He dedicated it to “the thousands of boys and girls who today are using their guitars and their songs to plant the seeds of a better tomorrow in the homes across our land.”
He was indeed a planter of seeds, seeds that germinated as individuals and small groups with backbone and heart.
I knew him best through his central role with one of those groups, the Children’s Music Network.
In the 1980s a group of like-minded teachers, performers, songwriters, radio hosts and parents organized to celebrate the positive power of music in the lives of children. I was on the board, and Pete was the editor of the letters column for Pass It On!, our magazine.
He was very active, which was not surprising since the Children’s Music Network was a natural fit for Pete. He had sung at countless summer camps and grade schools during the 1950s and ’60s, when he was blacklisted from nightclubs for his refusal to cooperate with the witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee.
Pete loved to sing with children. He knew countless kids’ songs and easily came up with challenging hooks to make them fun. He called the best songs “World Beaters,” and he thought the biggest World Beater of them all was “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” which he laced with “Whoa – backs” and “Hi, babes” and “Yum yums” in a particular sequence.
Pete sketched and challenged students to guess what he was drawing as he sang “I Had a Rooster.” He shrunk classrooms with his story “Abiyoyo,” about a child who used a ukulele to topple a giant. Naturally, his repertoire included protest songs such as “Be Kind To Your Parents” (“Though they don’t deserve it”) and “A Declaration of Independence” (“I will just do nothing at all, I will not eat my vegetables”).
Pete sowed seeds in Maine. In 1956, he went to Trinidad and saw that street musicians had turned junked oil drums into musical instruments. Impressed (“No other instrument can make itself heard so clearly above the hubbub of a noisy crowd”), he created an instruction manual with engineer-quality drawings detailing how to make every instrument in a steel band.
Twenty years later, Carl Chase, a teacher from Brooksville, Maine, happened across the manual. Intrigued, he found an oil barrel at the dump, rolled it onto his back porch and hammered out the tenor pan. On fire, he banged out the rest of the instruments and recruited his neighbors to form a band to play for arriving tourist boats at the town landing.
That was the beginning of the renowned Atlantic Clarion Steel Band, which Carl still leads. Carl has popularized steel band music throughout New England.
As decades rolled by, Pete had no idea that this particular seed had blossomed so powerfully. When Pete read a 1999 Boston Globe Magazine article about Chase and realized what that long-ago steel drum manual had set in motion, he was so touched that he wept.
In 1995 there was a concert of labor songs at Luther Bonney Auditorium in Portland, featuring workers’ songs that had originated in Maine. Organizers unearthed a bunch of them, but two of the best had no melodies. It was maddening, since the literature referred to them as songs, not poems.
I sent the lyrics to Pete and asked him if he had ever heard them. “I don’t know the right tunes,” he replied, “but I know the genre well and made two tunes you might want to use.” At the bottom of the page he scratched notation for “Come All Ye Lewiston Factory Girls” and “All Jovial Mechanics.” Two more seeds for Maine.
Pete Seeger was one of the world’s great correspondents. He believed in postcards. I saved all that came to me – sometimes he drew a banjo beside his signature, sometimes not. Some had epigrams at the end (“Hard Times a-comin’ ”), but most concluded with “Pete” or, increasingly, “Old Pete.”
As years passed he complained that he was losing his hearing and his memory (“Phil, my brain is going and others are answering most of my mail, but I hope to read every paragraph of your new book …”). Still, as his grandson observed, he was chopping wood 10 days before his death.
He was always going to come to Portland, but at least while I knew him, he never got around to it. It’s hard to believe there’ll be no more cards, or songs, or Pete.
He taught me what a purposeful life means, and what one can do with senior years. And a bunch of songs.
All appleseeds in my book.
— Special to the Press Herald