Jeffrey Hedquist & Pete Seeger

Spending the afternoon onstage with Pete Seeger on Earth Day was one of my most fulfilling experiences. Looking back I’m amazed at how it all came together. In late January I got a call from Melinda Perrin, co-chair of the Prairyerth Earth Living Treasures of North America Heritage Awards, “Pete Seeger will be one of the awards recipients.” she said. “Would you be interested in being the MC and singing a few songs?” After a stunned silence I simply said yes--an enthusiastic yes. “You’d probably get to sing with Pete,” she said. I guess dreams can come true.

I’ve been a long time fan of Pete Seeger, but it wasn’t always so. I was first introduced to his songs through the music of The Kingston Trio (Where Have All The Flowers Gone), Peter Paul and Mary (If I Had A Hammer), The Byrds (Turn, Turn Turn), and yes, even The Sandpipers (Guantanamera). Eventually I started listening to the legendary person who had written all these songs and appreciating him not only for his ability as a singer/songwriter, but as a social activist and environmentalist. He was coming to Chicago to be honored as a Living Treasure primarily for his work as an environmentalist. It was his inspiration that launched the sloop Clearwater and helped clean up the Hudson River. There are now ten Clearwater schooners sailing on various rivers, bays and lakes throughout the country, all of them inspired by Clearwater.

Starting in late March after Pete’s attendance was confirmed, I made my first call to the Seegers to start working with Pete in preparation for the concert. Pete and his wife Toshi live in a cabin in upper New York state on the Hudson river and are unreachable by any of the means of communication that I’d become accustomed to: UPS, FedEx, Fax, and E-Mail. Over the next weeks through letters and phone calls he and I planned the songs we’d do together. At Melinda’s suggestion I rewrote the words to the traditional song “The Fox” because the other award recipient, an environmentalist, known as The Fox, was also to be honored. I sent Pete my lyrics and he adjusted them and made suggestions of his own for the chorus. The day of our performance it was fun seeing a lyric sheet as part of the program, which said, “The Fox, traditional melody, new words by Jeffrey Hedquist and Pete Seeger.”

People ask, “What’s Pete Seeger like?” Well, he’s a very sweet, humble, focused, caring, giving, charismatic guy. In our first phone conversations he reiterated what I’d heard, that he had no singing voice left. As we worked on the songs we’d be doing together, whenever his vocal chords failed him, he’d whistle the exact tunes. Additionally, he said that he had no memory, but I’d describe it as selective memory. He’s on the go from dawn ’til dark and has no great need or time to hang on to the day to day details of life, but he’s able to remember songs and lyrics from decades ago without a problem, and regaled me on the phone with songs that occurred to him, stories of people he’d met and books he was reading.

On Friday night I picked up Pete and Toshi at the airport. He carried what may be the world’s most recognized banjo with him. As soon as his 12-string guitar came off the baggage conveyor belt he opened the case to confirm there was no damage. There’s usually never a problem, but on one past trip, someone who didn’t resonate with the outspoken stickers covering the case, had opened it and put a foot through the guitar. Pete has never been shy about proclaiming his political beliefs. The injury to his guitar was part of the price to pay for those signs promoting non-violence and equality.

Pete and Toshi are comfortable old friends. They’ve been partners for more than half a century, and their affection for each other is very much in evidence. She often takes the role of the organizer of the details of their lives, yet she defers to his skills as a performer. She’s also his most outspoken critic but delivers her comments with love and humor.

They were both pretty tired from their flight in from California, and we didn’t talk much on the ride in to Chicago. At this point, although we had become friends over the phone, we had never sung together. Because it was so late, I didn’t know if he’d want to rehearse at all. We got up to the room and before a bag was opened, before a jacket was removed, Pete had unpacked his banjo, tuned it and was playing. “Let’s go over these songs,” he said. Racing to keep up, I opened my guitar case, tuned quickly and joined Pete in our rendition of “The Fox.” The amazement of being in the same room playing a song with Pete Seeger dawned on me at that point and I forgot almost every word I had written. I had to get out my printed sheet to remember the lyrics to the song. As we rehearsed, Pete patiently corrected the melody I was singing. A couple more run-throughs and Pete was ready to collapse on the bed, so I left.

The next morning, after helping to set up the auditorium at the Historical Society, I walked through the windy Chicago streets to Pete’s hotel to rehearse. He met me at the door and handed me some chord sequences and a few bars of notes he’d written on some notebook paper. “I’d like you to learn these and play on the ‘Take it from Dr. King’ song.” This is a song Pete had written earlier in the year and was teaching to school children throughout the country. He’d be singing it in the evening concert with a group of about a dozen school children from the Chicago area. I accepted the honor and we started rehearsing it right away. We then ran through the other songs we’d be singing that afternoon while Pete’s wife Toshi sliced off chunks of cheese for us from a wedge they had brought with them. It seems that one of the Seeger children is an accomplished cheese maker. We also snacked on some of the fruit that had been given to Pete as a welcoming goodie bag. I said, “This is like being at home.” Toshi replied, “You ARE home.”

When we got to the Chicago Historical Society, the stage had been set up and we began a sound check. After I finished running through my songs, Ella Jenkins, the legendary African American children’s educator and artist beckoned to me from the audience and said, “I love what you’re doing. Would you accompany me on a song I’m going to do with Pete?” I delightedly agreed and we ran through “The Cuckoo” once and then Pete did his sound check. On stage that afternoon I got to tell stories, sing a couple of my original songs, sing with Pete and Ella and introduce environmentalists, members of the Fox’s family, and Pulitzer prize winner Studs Terkel. Because it was Studs’ 90th birthday in a couple of days, I led the audience in singing “Happy Birthday” to him.

During the afternoon performance something miraculous happened, other than me actually remembering the words to all the songs. Pete began to get his voice back. The songs that I was prepared to be the lead vocalist on I could now simply provide backup support for Pete. Ah, the power of an enthusiastic, singing, applauding audience to restore energy to tired vocal chords! Even so, I knew Pete was still holding some of his voice in reserve for the evening’s concert when he’d be singing with Weavermania and the children’s chorus.

As we finished “Sailing Up,” the last planned song of the afternoon; Studs Terkel grabbed my sleeve and said, “Ya can’t finish without singing ‘This Land is Your Land!’ Come on, Pete’s got to sing ‘This Land is your Land!’” I gestured to Pete and over the continuing applause called out, “Pete, Studs would like you to sing…” Before I could finish the sentence, Pete was at the microphone playing the banjo introduction, and leading the audience in the first few words of that great song, “As I was walking that ribbon of highway…” We ended the afternoon to a standing ovation and left for a dinner break.

In the evening concert, which was broadcast live on WFMT’s Midnight Special, Pete opened the performance with several of his most famous songs and brought the children’s chorus up to sing “Take it from Dr. King”, which I got to accompany him on. Then he left the stage saying he was simply going to become part of the audience and listen to Weavermania. What actually happened was that Pete sat on stage off to the side with his banjo and guitar, and from time to time, with a broad smile, leaped back up to the microphone to join Weavermania on some of the great songs he and the Weavers had sung for decades, much to the joy of Weavermania and the assembled audience.

Woody Guthrie had written in large letters on his guitars “This machine kills fascists.” Pete Seeger has inscribed on the head of his banjo “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” The Love that Pete Seeger creates around him proves the truth of that statement.

“Magical” is the best word I can use to describe my Earth Day 2002.

(Click here to see photos of Pete and Jeffrey)