The Rosendale Recreation Center was packed on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 9, as more than 100 admirers of Pete Seeger turned out for a potluck meal and singalong. The event was organized by Miriam Strouse of New Paltz to honor the memory of the late folksinger/activist, who died on Jan. 27 at the age of 94.
One side of the large community gathering space was lined with long tables bearing food and beverages of both the healthy and self-indulgent sort, most of them carefully labeled in the Clearwater spirit to identify their ingredients for the benefit of vegans, vegetarians, the lactose-intolerant and people with nut or wheat allergies. Among the food donors to the event were the Alternative Baker, Farfetched Roastery, My Market, the Bakery and the Big Cheese, and many of the attendees brought homemade dishes.
Families, groups of friends and chance-met strangers gathered at round tables to eat and reminisce about their musical folk hero. Other tables were strewn with literature from the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, the Climate Action Coalition and other environmental and community groups. Meanwhile, in the other half of the room, chairs were lined up for all who wished to listen to an ever-changing lineup of musicians and singers who led the crowd in exuberant singalongs of songs written by Seeger or associated with his long career.
Prior to intermission, the informal stage area was dominated by guitarists, one of whom was veteran Woodstock-area musician Gilles Malkine. Onlookers whispered excitedly that another guitarist was actually economist Michael Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. But the musicians’ nametags showed first names and hometowns only, reflecting the proletarian disdain for celebrity exemplified by Pete Seeger, a large part of whose mission was to encourage ordinary people to reclaim music-making as a popular pastime and means of both self-expression and political solidarity. Following the break, a couple of banjos took the place of some of the guitars, while other musicians turned up with washboards, spoons and other percussion instruments.
Most fans would agree that there’s no one left with Pete’s uncanny ability to coax an audience to sing along with him, somehow teaching the lyrics to a song on the fly in between singing each line. But the singers onstage did their best to lead, and the audience at the Rec Center was familiar enough with the beloved folksinger’s repertoire to need little encouragement to sing along with gusto. Organizers of the event had photocopied pages from the popular group singalong handbook Rise up Singing and distributed them to the crowd, along with a list of suggested songs. Seeger originals like “If I Had a Hammer,” “My Rainbow Race” and “Well May the World Go,” Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and “The Union Maid,” Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes,” antiwar anthems and spirituals rang out one by one as the afternoon progressed.
Some of the musicians performed original numbers that they had written about Seeger. One of these was Tim Hunter of Gardiner, a founding member of the Walkabout Clearwater Chorus, who prefaced his song “For Pete’s Sake” by saying, “We’re here to honor Pete — but Pete wouldn’t want to be honored.” Afterwards Hunter spoke with delight of the photo that he had taken of his four children with Seeger at a recent rally for Manna Jo Greene’s race for the Ulster County Legislature, then went on to relate a favorite anecdote.
“Pete went to Spain for a concert tour while Franco was still in power, and he was the headline act in a big arena,” said Hunter. “The generals in charge asked him, ‘Where’s your band?’ and Pete answered, ‘I’ve got no band, just my banjo.’ Then they handed him a list of songs they didn’t want him to sing, and Pete said, ‘This looks like my set list.’ So he got up onstage, started plunking his banjo and said to the crowd, ‘They don’t want me to sing these songs, so I’ll just play the banjo and you just sing along.’ And they did.” Hunter sees that story as a good example of how people can carry on Seeger’s mission: “Now we are Pete’s voice — we have to be the singers.”
Retired New Paltz schoolteacher Karen Cathers struck a similar note. “Pete represents, for a lot of these people, a whole lifetime of activism. I’ve seen them for years at protests and festivals. It’s a wonderful community of progressives and people in the middle,” she said. “I look around at these people and think, ‘Each one is another Pete.’ If everybody did their part, we could make the world a better place.”
To see more photos from the event, check out “Celebrate Pete Seeger’s Legacy in Rosendale Fed. 9th” on Facebook. Several additional events honoring the memory of Pete Seeger are planned for the mid-Hudson in the near future, including a Peace Vigil to be held on Saturday, Feb. 15 at the mini-Peace Park at the corner of Routes 9 and 9D in Poughkeepsie, near the South Hills Mall. You can find out more information about that gathering at www.facebook.com/events/557838927645642. Also, on Feb. 22 the Falcon in Marlboro will host a community potluck to honor Seeger, with music by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, Happy Traum, Bethany Yarrow and more. Call (845) 236-7970 or visit www.liveatthefalcon.com for details.