I loved hearing the tidal wave of affection for Pete Seeger when he died at 94. It reminded me of what I.F. Stone once said: "You can graduate from a pariah to a character and then, if you live long enough, you become a national institution."
The facts of Pete's life and accomplishments are now, more than ever, well known, but that is not the Pete Seeger I want to write about. I knew him over some 30 years, and here are a few glimpses of the guy who wandered around a rain-soaked Vancouver Folk Music Festival wearing a garbage bag with holes cut out for his head and arms - and the guy who closed the Obama Inaugural with This land is Your Land, complete with an original but usually repressed Woody Guthrie verse: "Was a wall there/ That tried to stop me/ And on the front side/ It said Private Property/ But on the other side/ It didn't say nothin'/ That side was made for you and me."
Out of the blue, one day in the mid-1980s, the phone rang, and a voice I recognized but couldn't place asked for me. "This is Pete Seeger," he said. He had tracked me down because he wanted to sing one of my songs, Show Us the Length. The song - the chorus of which starts "Show us the length of your cock" - was a broadside at beauty contests. Pete first performed it in Berkeley, where it brought the house down. But as he moved east, the explicit language made some of his older fans uncomfortable. Toshi, his wife, suggested Pete drop the song, and he did. Years later, we shared a bill at the Orpheum. "Let's sing Show Us the Length," Pete said with a mischievous twinkle and, though he probably hadn't sung it in years, he reeled it off, word for word and note for note.
When I left the Orpheum that night, Pete was sitting backstage, patiently sharing a few words with fans - maybe a hundred - lined up to pay their respects. He did that after every show.
A few years later, I went to Philadelphia for the annual get-together of the People's Music Network, a loose confederacy of political songsters. I crashed at the home of one of the organizers along with a half-dozen others, one of them Pete. Naturally Pete Seeger was given the guest room, but he insisted on rolling out his sleeping bag on the floor of the office. So I got the bed. What the hell.
That same weekend, a few of us got our signals crossed and got to the venue an hour early. It was bitter cold. The building was locked, empty, and not in a good part of town. "It's too cold to just stand around," Pete suggested, "so why don't we pick up some of this litter." Which, for the next three-quarters of an hour, we did.
Pete once told me his biggest regret was being on the road so much he didn't really see his kids grow up.
When he turned 90, I called Pete to say happy birthday. I asked him how he liked all the accolades he was receiving. "I don't like it," he said. "I had a half-way normal life. Now the mail comes in by the bushel. I can't go anywhere without being stopped every few seconds by people wanting to take a picture. It's no way to live." Apart from that, he was as upbeat as ever. "All my life I've been saying we've got a 50/50 chance," he said, "and that implies that any one of us might be the grain of sand to tip the scales in the right direction."
Our paths didn't cross for a couple of years after that. I didn't want to phone because so many other people were calling him. But then I heard a song called The Riley Boys by a little-known musician named Carol Denney. (You can hear it on YouTube.) As I have gotten older, it has become rare for a song to grab me like that, and I thought, "Pete should hear this." I knew he didn't use a computer or listen to CDs anymore. I debated calling him, decided against it, but the thought - Pete would dig this song - stuck with me, and I finally called. He greeted me cordially, but when I told him about the song he suggested I send it to Sing Out! I told him I really thought he would like it, and offered to send a file of it to Tinya, his daughter. "No," he said, "but can you sing it to me?" So I did, into the phone. When I finished there was a silence and then he said, "I'll be darned!" How nice to report that to Carol Denney.
My last contact with Pete was indirect but lovely. I called last summer because I wanted to know something about Les Rice, who wrote The Banks Are Made of Marble. I knew Rice was a comrade of Pete's in the 1940s. Pete wasn't in, but I got Tinya. I told her I was an old friend of Pete's, but that sounded lame, so I added, "He used to sing one of my songs."
"What song is that?" she asked.
"Oh, it was a long time ago," I said, "it was a song about beauty contests called Show Us the Length."
"No kidding," she said. "He sang that last month. He said it was by a guy on some island up in Canada, but he couldn't remember his name anymore."