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Pete Seeger was 94 when he passed away early Tuesday — laying waste to the notion that “only the good die young.”
The life and passing of Seeger, a folk musician, songwriter and activist, resonated in southeastern Connecticut.
“Ninety-four is a life well lived,” said Ben Parent of The Rivergods, a popular Americana band whose sound embraces a decided folk element. “I think Pete Seeger was one of those artists whose presence in modern music is indelible, like bedrock really, whether you like folk music or not.”
Seeger’s songs — a representative list would include “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” and “Worried Man Blues,” as well as his definitive version of “We Shall Overcome” — not only redefined folk music, but were hugely important in the burgeoning rock ’n’ roll era, influencing everyone from the Byrds and Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bragg.
It was more than just hit songs, of course. Seeger’s protest songs were reflective of an overall political and environmental activism, and his leftist views got him blacklisted by the U.S. government during the height of the 1950s McCarthyism.
“Pete’s been on my mind all morning,” said Sherry Stidfole, a retired music teacher at Waterford High School whose community works and participation in the Shoreline Acoustic Music Society are emblematic of Seeger’s worldview. “In reading Rabbi Michael Learner’s (memorial published Tuesday in Tikkun Magazine), I was impressed all over again with Pete’s influence on us all. He never backed away from what he believed in. We need more people like him.”
Stidfole and her husband, James, volunteered two summers in the mid-’90s at the Clearwater Festival on the Hudson, an annual event founded by Seeger and his wife, Toshi. Their Clearwater Foundation is focused on the environmental protection of the Hudson River and tangential waterways. Seeger’s sloop Clearwater, a sort of floating classroom, workshop and performance hall, is at the center of the foundation.
Stidfole says she relishes the memory of those days, seeing Seeger stroll happily around the grounds with his omnipresent banjo, which, in retrospect, proved a far more efficient political tool than the hammer he sang about.
“Seeger was a direct link to Woody Guthrie, the father of this whole white protest thing, a true rebel troubadour, and he lived the life he sung about,” Parent said. “He wasn’t a mere entertainer ... a star ... he was an activist, an agent of change who paid the price for his beliefs at times. Most importantly, he was a real human being that cared about his surroundings.”
Groton singer-songwriter Marco Frucht met Seeger more than once. He first encountered Seeger at a Providence memorial concert honoring Malvina Reynolds (whose song “Little Boxes” was famously covered by Seeger). He got to know Seeger better when both attended nonviolence training sessions years ago in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ga.
“When you went somewhere Pete was singing, you never only got sung to, you got hooked right away singing WITH him and everyone else who was there with you,” Frucht said. “Whenever you worked for, with or around him, he always said how great it was to work alongside YOU. His way of seeing the world and being the world was and always will be infectious.”
A local couple perhaps most profoundly affected by Seeger’s death are Penny Parsekian and Geoff Kaufman.
“I heard about Pete’s passing on the radio this morning, and it hit me hard,” said Parsekian, former executive director of New London Main Street. “Geoff is in Key West, so I called him right away. We’re pretty broken up.”
Parsekian and Kaufman, who is an internationally renowned folksinger and a chanteyman at Mystic Seaport, met through the Clearwater Foundation. She was doing shore support for the sloop Clearwater, and Kaufman was a performer and crew member.
“The crew came to my house to take showers and make phone calls since there were no cellphones in those days,” Parsekian said. “So you could say that if it weren’t for Pete, Geoff and I wouldn’t have found each other.”
Over time, Kaufman’s friendship and professional relationship with Seeger grew, and Kaufman ultimately brought Seeger to perform at Mystic Seaport in 1995.
“That’s where I got to experience Pete in a casual setting and get good advice from Toshi,” Parsekian said. “I remember once asking her if she ever got over the embarrassment of being in the audience when Pete forgot the lyrics. She helped me get used to being a folk singer’s wife. We loved and admired them both.”
The Seegers also attended the ceremony when Parsekian and Kaufman got married. Parsekian remembered, “Pete actually hitchhiked to the wedding, and at one point, fell asleep under a stowed dinghy. I have a photo of his feet sticking out.”
Kaufman, in an email Tuesday, recalled meeting Seeger for the first time in 1977 when Kaufman answered a small notice in a local paper about creating a Brooklyn Sloop Club to support the efforts of the Clearwater. A couple of years later, Kaufman began performing with Seeger and the Sloop Singers.
“Pete’s influence on me was musically very important, but even more significant spiritually,” Kaufman said. “On the musical front the influence was twofold; the humanist focus of his music sank in, and still percolates in a lot of what I do, and his desire to have the audience sing along became mine as well. I think this second part figures into the larger impact Pete has had on me. He was first and foremost inclusive, wanting everyone to share his passions, and for him getting people to share the musical experience was simply natural. He was quite vocal about the detriments of the ‘star system’ that has developed here and worldwide in the music industry. He was incredibly self-effacing but in groups like the Sloop Singers he was firm in his guidance toward the best arrangement of a song.”