The late, legendary Pete Seeger knew how to sing for a cause. Throughout his career, he performed, rallied, and wrote music for labor rights, civil rights, and the end of the Vietnam War. He was also deeply involved in the environmental movement, particularly when it came to the Hudson River. A longtime resident of Beacon, N.Y., Seeger and his wife and producer, Toshi Seeger, bought a cabin there overlooking the Hudson in the 1940s and spent years rallying for the clean-up and preservation of the great waterway, a fight that’s documented in New-York Historical’s current exhibition Hudson Rising.
Seeger died in 2014 at the age of 94, performing almost until the end of his life. This year on May 3, the world will celebrate the centennial of his birth with a number of concerts, festivals, and singalongs. On April 22, New-York Historical will have its own commemoration with an event featuring Richard Barone, a recording artist, producer, and friend, who co-produced Seeger’s final single—and first music video!—2012’s “God’s Counting on Me, God’s Counting on You.” In conversation with historian Stephen Petrus, he’ll discuss Seeger’s life and legacy and the power of music that Seeger spent his life cultivating. An accomplished musician himself—he fronted the indie band the Bongos before striking out on a solo career—Barone will even perform some Seeger songs at the end. (To purchase tickets, go here.)
We recently spoke to Barone ahead of the event, and he had a lot to say about his memories of Seeger. “We recorded a version of ‘God’s Counting on Me’ at a benefit concert, and he made me promise that the singing of the people in the crowd be as loud in the mix as he was,” says Barone. “Most artists don’t want that, but he did. That’s what his music is about: He felt that power came from singing together.”
New-York Historical Society: Seeger had such a long, varied career, from his travels with Woody Guthrie to his time with groups like the Almanac Singers and the Weavers to his work as a writer on songs like “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” Do you remember the first time you heard him sing?
Richard Barone: I do, I remember sitting in front of the television set with my family, and Pete coming on. Of course, he was blacklisted for years from network television. [Note: Seeger had been banned because his membership in the Communist Party in the 1940s and his refusal to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955.] But he was bold enough to sing an anti-war song “Bring Them Home” on The Johnny Cash Show. I was a child, but I was thinking of older relatives and how they could be drafted. That was the first time that a performer affected me other than just entertaining me.
N-YHS: How did you end up working with him so many years later?
RB: In 2010, I was asked to produce a benefit concert for the cleanup of the BP oil spill in the Gulf. I was trying to find the right balance of artists, and as I asked around, everybody said, “You’ve gotta ask Pete Seeger.” A publicist I knew had his home number, so I called him, and he picked up the phone. Of course, he immediately agreed to be part of the concert, but he told me he’d already written a song that had referenced the oil spill, “God’s Counting on Me.” He sang the whole song to me on the phone—seven verses! I was knocked out by the idea that at age 91, he was so ready to spring into action that I said, “Well Pete, have you recorded it yet? Would you like to?”
N-YHS: That single also produced Seeger’s first music video, recorded on his famed sloop Clearwater as it sailed the Hudson. Did you always intend to record on a boat?
RB: My co-producer, Matthew Billy, and I had planned to go up to Beacon to record Pete in a studio. But only a day or so before, Pete decided that he wanted to record while sailing. I immediately got on the phone with Matthew: There was no power on the boat, so we had to get a generator, and Matthew really helped to make sure we didn’t get the wind and ambient noise in the microphones. After researching, I found that as the day wore on, Pete’s voice would get weaker—he was 91, he certainly sang a lot in his life! So I said “Pete, let’s do it in the morning.” I tend to not start a recording session at 9 am, especially outside, sailing on a boat in bright daylight. But he was in beautiful voice. I only had him for that day, but we got it done, and it was truly magical.
N-YHS: How did he feel when his song hit YouTube?
RB: He was so sweet. I brought my laptop, and I said, “Pete, we need to put this on YouTube.” And his only comment was, repeatedly, “Oh, my goodness! Oh, my goodness!” Because he saw how he could reach so many people. He was thrilled.
Watch the video below:
N-YHS: You’ve taught a class at the New School called “Music + Revolution: Greenwich Village in the 1960s” that covers a lot of Seeger’s peers in the folk scene. Do you believe music can affect social change?
RB: Music can change the world, and it did in the 1960s. I think people have forgotten that. That’s something that I’m trying to keep alive in my class. Music can really galvanize public opinion. Pete Seeger did that over and over. He was really persecuted in so many ways, and yet never acted as if he was a martyr and was always forward-thinking and modern and had a wide view of music that went way beyond what we consider folk music. He’s a singular American icon. There’s no one else like him.
To hear Barone perform and share more memories of Pete Seeger, purchase tickets to our event on April 22 at 7 pm. And visit the exhibition Hudson Rising to learn more about the history of Hudson River activism.