Pete Seeger

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(HOST) A new CD by Bruce Springsteen has transported commentator Howard Coffin back to a time when he first heard Pete Seeger sing.

(COFFIN) Twice during the Cold War years of the late fifties, when lonely boys in Civil Air Patrol uniforms scanned the skies between Mount Tom and Blake Hill for enemy planes, Pete Seeger gave concerts in Woodstock.

A wonderful teacher of mine at the time was Ron Raynolds. He was always trying to broaden our thinking and he insisted that I attend. I’d never heard of Seeger, though by then he’d been part of the legendary Weavers who had recorded a record at Carnegie Hall. “Good Night Irene, good night Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams.”

So I went to the Little Theater and sat on the floor with a lot of other young people and heard Seeger play the guitar, banjo, and recorder – and sing folk songs. He even got a lot of up-tight Vermont kids singing along – loudly. We heard Barbrie Allen, Wimoweh, Bells of Rhymney, Simple Gifts, and heard lyrics that asked questions, raised issues, and made some of us think a bit: Where have all the flowers gone? Which side are you on? On those two nights it began to dawn on me that music had uses other than dancing, and whistling along.

There’s currently a renewed interest in Seeger, due in part to our being in another unpopular war, but very much to the new Bruce Springsteen CD We Shall Overcome: the Seeger Sessions that pay tribute to Pete Seeger, now old. (To everything there is a season.) Particularly on hearing Shenandoah I recalled those Woodstock nights. Seeger had come to my home town because he had a son at the local private school – the Woodstock Country Day School. He gave the concerts free of charge.

I was so intrigued by the man that I later attended his concerts anywhere I could – Sugarbush, Peekskill, Boston. I interviewed him twice and he always spoke of hope: hope for a better world, an end to hunger, a cleaner planet, hope for an end to militaristic governments, hope for a world without war.

The most memorable concert of all came in the early eighties, at Dartmouth. The college was hosting a reunion of aging veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, once the lads who went against the wishes of our government to fight fascism in Spain before it blossomed all across Europe. At the close of a mighty evening of song and reminiscence, Pete and the old rebels sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”.

Recently I read some words by Octavio Paz, who also fought for the republic in Spain, and kept encountering the same look on the faces of his comrades. He wrote:

“The memory will never leave me. Anyone who has looked Hope in the face will never forget it. He will search for it everywhere he goes.”

I think I saw that look that night in Hanover, when Pete Seeger sang.

Howard Coffin is an author and historian who’s specialty is the civil war.

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