NO MORE POSTCARDS: Meeting Pete Seeger
This morning I had a text from my friend Jon. Cryptically: three words: No More Postcards. I looked at this for a bit, puzzled. What did it mean? Later, I call Jon for the answer.
“It’s Pete Seeger” he tells me. “He’s died.”
“That’s terrible news.” I say, and I mean it. Pete Seeger, another one of my heroes. Gone.
The ‘No More Postcards’ refers to the fact that I often boasted that Pete and I were great friends. In fact, I’d say, he used to send me postcards, inferring that we were in regular correspondence. The truth is: he sent me two. I have them here in front of me.
On the second of the cards, answering my question as to whether anyone had ever made a film of his life, Pete says ‘My life has been shot by Jim Brown and is now in film festivals. After you have seen it, you can call me. But there are many whose story is more worth shooting. Hey call me any time. Pete.”
Friendly. Self effacing. Very giving of himself, despite, no doubt, being besieged by idiots like me looking for favours.
“Hey call me any time….”
I met Pete when I interviewed him in New York for my mammoth documentary on Woody Guthrie, ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’. We agreed to meet at his hotel. It was a great hotel, small and homely, and I wish I could remember where it was and what it was called as I’d stay there every time, but I’ve forgotten it – so I can’t. His wife Toshi met me and my cameraman, Matt, and led us up to their room where Pete was sitting on his bed, waiting for us. Toshi looked like an Arts and Crafts Godmother type, all scarves and a long skirt, all calmness, and gentle manners. During our interview with Pete, Toshi went and sat in her chair and picked up her knitting and got on with it. It was that kind of atmosphere. After the hassle and rush of the New York outside of their room – I found it very soothing.
Pete himself was just as relaxed. We chatted and then we filmed the interview.
At some point I will transcribe what he said. But not now. What I want to say here, in all truth and seriousness, is that of all the people that I have met and interviewed, Pete Seeger was the most impressive. Not impressive as in ‘clever’, or ‘witty’ or any of those things. The impression I had was of …. saintliness, I suppose. There was a kind of a holy man feeling about him. Honestly. Now I’m aware that this sounds pompous, and maybe a bit over the top, but who cares? He was like that.
We talked about Woody, and at one point Pete said something like: “… I don’t know why Woody put up with me really. I think it was because I could hold a tune, and didn’t try anything fancy, I suppose….”
Pete honestly believed that. But maybe people like Pete get greatness over time. Maybe when Woody first met him Pete was awkward and shy. Tall and ungainly. I don’t know.
Of course Pete went on to be a hugely important figure, in the folk world especially, but also in American life. Most importantly, he stood up to, and refused to be cowed by the Un-American committee who accused him of spreading Communism with his folk tunes.
Footage of that era is freely available on the internet and is, I think, well worth hunting out.
That’s all I wanted to say.
Now of course I wish that I had called him up, but what would I have had to say, apart from the fact that I really admired him.
This will have to do.