By Michael Shapiro
Was sad to hear about the death of folk legend Pete Seeger today – here are three stories you won’t read in his obits.
1. Decades ago, Warren Hellman, then a NY investment banker (he was head of Lehman Bros.), asked Seeger if he would teach him how to play the banjo. Seeger said he has no use for bankers or Hellman’s money. (Hellman told me this when I interviewed him in 2009.)
Seeger was a man of the people, but too bad he couldn’t recognize that sometimes those in the 1% are good people too. Hellman founded and paid for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in SF, bringing free music to millions of people over the past 13 years.
And Hellman, who became an accomplished banjo player without Seeger’s help, left a fund to continue paying for the fest after his death, which came way too soon. Maybe Warren and Pete will find each other in the afterlife and do a little pickin’ together.
2. Just two months ago, Seeger appeared in support of the Buffalo newspaper guild to encourage the union to fight for its rights. From the guild’s newsletter story on Seeger:
The 94-year-old walked into the conference room at the Hampton Inn, stepped onto a chair and proceeded to sing, a cappella, the satirical “Newspapermen Meet Such Interesting People,” and later shared with the group his early aspirations toward a career in journalism.
When local folk singer Phil Knoerzer, who performed at the special Guild program, shared with Seeger that he had earlier in the day sang a song by folk icon Woody Guthrie called “Union Maid,” Seeger responded: “I was with Woody when he wrote that song.” We looked it up and, indeed, it occurred in June 1940 – a mere 73 years ago.
3. From the great oral historian Studs Terkel, whom I interviewed for The Sun magazine a couple of years before he died:
I loved music as a kid. I never played an instrument, and I can’t carry a tune, but I’d hear that music, the music played by black bands — the patrons were all white, but the bands were black. And then folk music came about during the Great Depression. When I was an actor, I ran into this group called the Almanac Singers. They sang at labor rallies and traveled in a jalopy around the country. And that group had Woody Guthrie in it.
One day they came to Chicago Repertory. We were doing a play about a strike or something. I’d just gotten married, and my wife and I had a two-and-a-half-room place with a pull-down Murphy bed. I sent these guys back to my place about twelve o’clock at night to sleep. I write a note to my wife to send along with them. It says, “These are good guys. Put them up for the night.”
Well, she’s asleep, and the bell rings about 12:30 at night, and she goes to the door. There are four guys standing there: A little, freckle-faced guy; that’s Woody. And a kid with a big, bobbing Adam’s apple; that was Pete Seeger. And a huge man from Arkansas named Lee Hayes. And one other. They were there for two weeks, sleeping on the floor together. And one night I woke up, and Woody was asleep, and in the wastebasket were about twenty crumpled pages, single-spaced, and, so help me, it was fantastic writing. And I threw it away, wouldn’t you know.
Click here for excerpt from my Sun interview with Terkel.