Janos Maté: Meeting Pete Seeger

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I just heard on CBC that Pete Seeger has died. I am saddened by the passing of this finest of human beings.

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When we were teenagers in the 1960s, our generation embraced social consciousness listening to Pete’s songs. We saw him in concerts and sang his songs of freedom and peace at anti-war rallies, peace marches, and civil rights protests.

In 1985, dozens of Haida elders got arrested on Lyell Island defending the old growth forests of Athlii Gwai by blocking logging roads. When I heard that there was an appeal from the Haida Nation to the larger society for legal aid funds, I thought of organizing a benefit concert with Pete Seeger. I phoned a friend, Corey Hawes, who was then living in Vancouver, and whose mother Beth Hawes was then the director of the National Endowment for the Folk Arts in the United States. Beth was a close friend of Pete’s. She and Pete had been members of the Almanac Singers, which preceded the legendary folk group, the Weavers, and Corey grew up among Pete and Woody Guthrie and other folk legends.

Through Beth, we extended an invitation to Pete to come Vancouver. When Pete accepted the invitation, we booked the Orpheum Theatre, and then phoned the Haida Nation to see if they would be interested in such a concert.

The concert happened on March 21, 1986. Prior to the concert, we held a press conference where Pete took out a telegram that he had received from Jack Munro, who was then the head of the IWA.

Pete said, "A few days ago I received this telegram from some fellow called Jack Munro, who writes: 'Pete, you have always stood for the rights of working people, you have always supported unions. Do not come to Vancouver to give this concert for you will be taking jobs away from hard-working union folks.'" After reading the telegram, Pete commented, "It is true. I do support unions and working people organizing to make a better life. But we must also support the preservation of old growth forests and the rights of indigenous people. That is why I am here." 

The concert raised close $22,000, and Pete was honoured at a reception by the Haida people.

We had the privilege to spend four days with Pete. I got to make him whale tales (fried flattened bread dough) for lunch. I once asked him if he had any regrets.

“Being on the road too much and not spending enough time with my children when they were little,” he replied.

During those four days, we told Pete about Expo' 86 evicting some poor people from their homes. It so happened that Pete was scheduled to perform at Expo. When he heard about the evictions, he immediately said he would cancel his appearance unless he could give a free concert to raise money for the poor.

We contacted Jim Green of the Dowtown Eastside Residence Association, and with the cooperation of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, “A Free Concert for the Evicted” was produced in Stanley Park in May 1986. The concert starred Pete with Arlo Guthrie, and also included Bim, Bob Bossin, D.O.A., Connie Kaldor, and Katari Taiko. About 10,000 people attended.

In 1988, we were organizing Give Peace a Dance, a 12-hour dance marathon fundraiser at the Plaza of Nations. I wrote to Pete to invite him to join us. He wrote back, “You don’t need me for this event. Repeat the event year after year, educate your community, and then the community will show up. “

The last time I saw Pete was in 1989. I was then working with Greenpeace as the nuclear-free seas campaign coordinator. Pete was appearing at the Folk Festival. The Folk Festival that year coincided with the Vancouver Sea Festival. The Sea Festival routinely invited the U.S. Navy, which routinely brought nuclear-armed aircraft carriers into Vancouver harbor even though Vancouver was a nuclear weapons free zone.

To raise public awareness about the dangers of nuclear armed warships in civilian ports, Greenpeace hired a banner towing airplane, with the sign, “Greenpeace Alert: Nuclear Arms in Port”. The plane flew over Jericho Beach just as Pete was on main stage. Pete looked up, saw the sign, and said to the crowd of 25,000, “Look up there. There is an urgent message. We must rid the world of nuclear weapons. ”

He then visited us on the Vega, the original Greenpeace sailboat that happened to be in Vancouver. Pete had an affinity for boats of action. As a resident of Beacon, New York, he spearheaded the Hudson River Clearwater organization. Over several decades, he tirelessly campaigned on board an old sailing vessel, the Clearwater Sloop, to bring people down to the river side and raise awareness for the need to clean up the river.

Pete lived his values through political, environmental, and human rights activism. There was no separation between the man, his actions, and his music.

His death leaves a huge vacuum. But his spirit will live forever through his shining examples and through the many anthems of hope, peace, freedom, and equality that he bequeathed us.

I feel so fortunate to have met him, and to have his autograph on my banjo and on my Robert Davidson poster for the Pete Seeger Concert for Athlii Gwai.

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Gila Wertheimer
Beautiful! So many stories; the names and places change, but at their heart is the upright goodness that was Pete Seeger. The plaid shirt and the banjo -- a deceptively simple image that spoke out clearly, touching that which is best within all of us. As Janos so well put it, there was no separation between the man, his actions and his music. Therein lay the "secret" of the inspiration he instilled in others.
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