Folk giant Pete Seeger died Monday evening at the New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. He was 94 and lived an unquestionably bursting life as one of the most important figures in American music.
Impossible to contextualize Seeger’s lifetime achievements without turning this into an obituary, readily handled by the Washington Post and New York Times. Over 60 years, he released 52 studio albums, 23 compilations, 10 live collections, and at least three songs – “We Shall Overcome,” “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song),” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” – that you could likely sing in full without thinking.
What’s more, he served as one of the preeminent political figures in music, an individual who inspired modern folk heroes including Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen. He made music less about art and more about being a platform for change. How else would you explain Seeger joining the Occupy Wall Street rallies in December 2011 at the ripe age of 92?
Around Austin, musicians have spent much of the day expounding gratitude for Seeger, notably singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves, who played two shows with Seeger: 2002’s Newport Folk Festival and MerleFest four years later in North Carolina.
“He had a worldview that was out of favor to the point where he wasn’t allowed on TV or radio,” Cleaves said, referring to Seeger’s blacklisting during the Fifties for his work alongside the Weavers. “My favorite part about Pete is that he took that – this huge blow to his career – and he just started playing in elementary schools. Playing Woody Guthrie songs in elementary schools.
“In 1963, just before I was born, my mom was a kindergarten teacher, so I have these Pete Seeger records from 1959 and 1963 that I grew up listening to. Pete’s been a part of my life since I was in the crib.”
News of the passing had Chronicle Music wondering if Seeger ever played Austin. Those first to report back had nothing in the way of local appearances: no gigs at Armadillo World Headquarters or Vulcan Gas Company, shrugged Chronicle music lifer Margaret Moser, who’s been in town since the Seventies. She sourced a folk expert in the area to confirm that same suspicion, while Cactus Cafe veteran Chris Lueck, bar manager at the University of Texas sound room for the past 28 years, says Seeger never stepped on stage at the folk mecca.
Through the morning and early afternoon, the closest we came was Kerrville in 1984, when Seeger headlined the second running of the Goodtime Music Festival, which had a four-year run midway through that decade. Industry do-it-all Rod Kennedy’s the one who threw that festival, and Kerrville Folk Festival producer Dalis Allen remembers Seeger encouraging Kennedy to pen his book, Music From the Heart.
An email from Pam Golightly directed attention towards the City Coliseum, a refurbished aircraft hanger that hosted shows just south of Town Lake from the Fifties through the Eighties.
“I had several of those iconic Vulcan Gas posters,” she wrote. “I’m not even sure where they are... but I can still picture them. I remember Pete Seeger, Edgar [Winter], can’t remember if Johnny [Winter, Edgar’s brother] was there, but definitely Shiva’s Head Band.
“I think it was ’69 or ’70.”
It was actually ’67. Websites conflict, but one used to host a poster from May of that year by the great Gilbert Shelton, a “Doves of Peace” show with Bernice Reagon. Word also trickled in that Seeger played another Austin show in 1961: a Student Peace Union rally at the Wesley Foundation on 22nd and Nueces.
“[Four-hundred] people had jammed themselves into Wesley’s auditorium,” blogger Ian Lind’s friend Michael remembered in writing on the occasion of Seeger’s 90th birthday. “We got the full Seeger treatment.”
Which, if you ask Cleaves, defined Pete Seeger.
“I ran into him backstage once, and I was kind of starstruck,” recalled the local troubadour. “I didn’t know what to say. I was with somebody else from my generation, and [Seeger] just started lecturing. Not in a bad way, but just espousing his beliefs: ‘You know, we’ve got to keep singing our song even if it’s not the most popular song right now.’
“The lasting impact he’s had on me is his courage to hold on to and keep espousing his opinions even though the rest of the country was violently against him, and to hold on to those beliefs and have faith that the world would come around.
“Sure enough, to a big degree, the world came around.”
Copyright © 2016 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.