I fumbled with an unfamiliar guitar and fingerless gloves in a cold little house behind the studio, a converted barn. Pete Seeger perched on the opposite chair, lanky as the tall bare wintry trees outside, trying out recorders for the ballad we were about to play together, “The Lass of Glenshee.”
It was a grey, snow-mushy day in Woodstock, NY in March, 2000. A group of musicians had gathered to record traditional songs and tunes from the Catskill Mountain region, collected decades earlier by my musicologist father Norman Cazden and his colleague Herb Haufrecht.
Pete didn’t look at me, focusing on an alto recorder, then a tenor, then back to the alto. “What key are you in?” he asked. “E-minor,” I said, playing the accompinament that had fit my voice for years. He repeated the question several times until I realized what was happening: he knew what key he wanted, and would keep asking until we landed there! I quietly transposed to match him.
Pete was not just a musical hero to me. My dad had studied musicology with his dad (Charlie) in the 1930s, and had helped with music notation for the early People’s Songs publications started by Pete and Mario Casetta. During the “lean years” of the blacklist, when Pete couldn’t get major concert gigs in the USA and toured on the cheap, either overseas or to small events stateside, he occasionally stayed at our house. My mother remembers him holding me on his knee as an infant. I remember the annual singalong concerts of my childhood, and the profound admiration with which his name was always mentioned.
As an adult trying to follow Pete’s activist-troubador footsteps in the 1970s and early 80s, I’d cross paths with him now and then. At a conference on political music, a large anti-nuke protest in Washington DC, or a benefit here in Los Angeles, he would acknowledge me with the tiniest nod. He knew who I was; I fit somewhere in his immense universe. There was rarely small talk, just work to be done.
The most memorable time I’d heard Pete play recorder was around 1974, at a private concert for friends in suburban Boston. He’d sat in front of a bright red curtain on a high school auditorium stage, surrounded by instruments, just playing his personal favorites. From the Catskills repertoire, he selected the Irish-flavored ballad “The Foggy Dew.”
He had seemed to draw the melody in the air as he lifted the alto recorder and spun out the wistful tune. The faded scarlet stage curtain, Pete’s residual red hair and sunburned brow, and the recorder’s caramel-maple color had glowed together in the spotlight.
But a different light had shone from his forehead as he played. It was as if the years of music and struggle had radiated out and then condensed into pure spirit. He was in a zone, one I hoped to enter with him, so many years later in Woodstock.
By then, of course, Pete had aged. He was forgetful, rough-voiced, subtly fragile. But “Glenshee” was a favorite song for us both. I quickly transposed into the key he wanted. An introduction and solo break were worked out and we trudged back across the snow to the studio. We were set up with mics and headsets and all, while Ronnie Gilbert, Jay Unger, Eric Weissberg and Happy Traum waited their turns in the next room.
The melody lived in Pete’s bones as clearly as ever, but his diminished air supply made him play in short phrases and pause a bit between them. I really wanted to do well in the company of such legends but was struggling to match his rhythm. I’d already abandoned my familiar left-hand guitar voicings to make the key change. Now my finger-picker’s ego dissolved into the simplest of strums.
Months later, when the CD was finished, I had to ask the producer what digital wizardry had been used to take out the uneven beats. He knew exactly what I meant, but laughed and said he hadn’t done anything. Although Pete would hate this explanation, I knew that spirit had once again transcended matter. His solo was perfect.
adapted from FOLKWORKS, Nov-Dec. 2005