So its like this... my friend Chuck Smith (singer-songwriter/social
activist) told me about this festival in New York, and asked if
Folks Together wanted to come down and play.. He said,"It
ain't much of a festival, but Pete Seeger will be there..."
Hmmm, Beacon New York is a good four hour drive from here...
After all, we had already done two trips to Maine this summer.
We were all a little "saddle sore" and money was, as
usual, a little tight..
I proposed the idea to the rest of the group half expecting them to be reluctant to drive 8 hours for a "freebie." To my surprise everyone was more than up for the experience, so I called Dan Searles, the festival organizer, in Beacon and told him to expect us... Dan was candid in his descriotion of the festival.. He said, "It ain't gonna be a big deal, but Pete will be there and we'd love to have you..."
So off we went to Beacon. John and Rick in Rick's Mitsubishi truck and Vinnie, Donna, Barb Kemper and I (Jeff) in our trusty minivan. Vinnie knows this area well... He lived in nearby Danbury, (much of his family remains in the area) and he lived and worked in the NY/CT region off and on for many years... I think he rode with us just to be sure I wouldn't get lost...
Being the perpetual"early bird" Rick and John arrived an hour before the van group... Proving the old saying about the early bird getting the worm, Dan Searles immediately asked them to play a brief warm up set before we arrived... Since few others were there at the time, their audience was mostly the people setting up including Pete Seeger...
When we arrived, they were beaming from ear to ear at this bit of good fortune. I think Rick was equally pleased to have demonstrated the value of his early departure routine... (he hasn't let me forget it since...)
The full impact of the occasion didn't hit me until I saw the man up close. Tall and thin, with white hair shaggy beard and a floppy old white hat, he didn't look much like a living legend. I mean, this is the guy who sang "We Shall Overcome" with Dr, King, the guy who hung out with Woody Guthrie (not to mention Arlo), the same fella who wrote "The Bells of Rhimney" and "Turn, Turn, Turn." And, here he was hanging out at a tiny festival outside The Beacon Sloop Club.. Not the stuff of "Living Legends" to be sure...
But Pete Seeger is not average by any man's definition except, perhaps, his own. He has dedicated his entire life to bettering the human condition... Regardless of your political views, dedication to projects and causes that are destined to create a negative cashflow is worthy of respect... To an old Hippie like me, (The same description also applies to the other male members of the group- Donna is too young to be an old anything) Pete represents all the promise of the 60's.. Having long ago given up most of my idealism for the trappings of middle class life, I could not help but feel a little "in awe" at being in his presence..
As it turned out, it was Rhode Island Day in Beacon... In addition to our benefactor, Chuck Smith, old friends Ed McGuirl and Mike Fishman (The Folk Support Group) were also on the bill.. We spent a few minutes laughing and talking about the Rhode Island Invasion as Chuck ws getting prepared to play... At that moment in time, it seemed like a damn near perfect day...
Chuck Smith was first on the "official" bill. He is a superb musician. His playing is very percussive and rhythmic, and his ability to supply his own percussion with his voice is truly incredible.. Chuck's style and energy set him apart from the singer-songwriter crowd... I especially like his song "Beep, Beep, Beep." This high energy piece that never fails to get a great reaction from audiences...
On this day, Chuck had reinforcements. He was accompanied by his friend Mike on an assortment of home made percussion instruments and a bass player friend "Jeff"... Chuck performed a great set which featured his finest tunes.. He chose to end the set with an usunusal version of The Beatles "Hey Jude." Chuck has adapted the song to his style and message.. Singing "Hey You" instead of "Hey Jude", Chuck uses the song as a rallying cry . He challenges us to get involved, to make a committment...
No one can say he isn't willing to lead by example...Chuck dedicates most of his time and musical efforts to ending hunger... Chuck's contributions continue to grow, He is currently organizing a series of Open Mic's designed to generate money for the RI Foodbank.
Folks Together was scheduled to go on after Chuck. As we scrounged
around for mikes and stands, someone noticed that Pete was gone...
The Sloop Woody Guthrie was just departing from the adjacent dock,
and Pete's white hat was clearly visible onboard. It was one of
those "Murphy's Law" moments that all of us in the glamorous
world of Folk/ Acoustic music know all too well... But hey, we
are professionals, right? We were here to do a job with or without
Pete listening, after all what did we think would happen if he
were there? Were we delusional enough to think he'd be so impressed
with us that he would take us under his wing? Naw, but we did
hope to have him hear our music...
Duty called and we took the stage. As it turned out we were scheduled to play twice, so maybe set two would give us a chance to play for the master... The set went well, the audience and staff at the festival really seemed to get into it... By the time we finished we had pretty much forgotten about our disappointments and were feeling good about having played for some new faces...
The Folk Support Group was next... If you've never heard these guys you are missing something truly special. They are funny and very talented mixing bluegrass with folk, blues, and Celtic tunes. For a duo they make a lot of noise, doubling on guitars, banjo, fiddle, and mandolin... They switch instruments and styles on nearly every song.. It is an intriguing performance to watch and hear...
When the Folk Support Group took the stage, Pete was still
on the boat... He returned just in time to hear their last couple
tunes. I admit to feeling slightly jealous of their good fortune,
but they are friends and we love their music, so their good fortune
is our good fortune...
Following the Folk Support Group set, Dan Searles brought Pete over to meet us... We reacted like you might expect.. We smiled, shook his hand, and were pretty much devoid of meaningful conversation... I mean, what do I have to say that might interest a living legend?
As the day wore on, others took the stage for brief sets...
It was getting late, and I was beginning to wonder if Pete was
even going to play.. Given the small crowd, I thought he might
just sit this one out... Just as I was about to ask Dan if he
wanted us to do another set, Pete emerged from the Beacon Sloop
Club armed with his banjo, a handmade 12 string and a recorder...
Now, things were looking up.. Pete began by saying that his voice
was weak, suggesting that if we would help him with the singing
we might "sound pretty good.." He started with what
is his most popular song" Turn Turn Turn..." He talked
about the biblical origin of the song. And how, at the time, his
publisher was not impressed.. He told Pete that protest songs
were out dated, and said he should write something more commercial...
His response was basically, "This is the kind of songs I
write, if you don't like it get another songwriter.." Of
course, Pete had the last laugh...The Byrds version of Turn Turn
Turn was a huge hit.
Pete proved he was human by stumbling over one of the verses. Stopping briefly, he said, "Damn, I forgot the words to my own song." Of course anyone who plays music loses his or her place from time to time. No matter when or where it happens, losing your place in a song, especially your own song, is embarassing as hell. But, after seeing someone of legendary status do so I will forever feel a little less inadequate...
Pete's stage presence and patter are without peer. He put on a "clinic"on how to reach an audience, geting us involved in singing along on several African folk songs. Pete told us about getting a book of these folk tales and songs in the 50's. Over time, he worked some of the stories and songs into his act.. They were so popular with audiences that he ended up recording an album's worth. Unlike most of us who would see the acquisition of uncopywritten material as a goldmine... Pete undertook a massive and costly search to find the original tribes from which these songs originated... Then, he had the writers royalties sent to them.. As I said, Pete is truly a Living Legend
Pete and Vinnie (Under the tree, Rick waits his turn)
Prior to the set, Pete made it clear to all that we were welcome
to join him onstage... Being a man of action, it didn't take for
Vinnie to grab his violin. Rick followed shortly after on mandolin...
John and I held back at first but soon joined the party... Donna,
who had never heard Pete before, was awed by the entire experience.
She sat with Barb in the audience, a safe distance from the stage..
That didn't last long... Pete started calling up friends from
the audience. He saw Donna sitting there and waved for her to
come up.. She was hesitant until a woman who had been working
at one of the tables all but grabbed her and forced to the mic...
Pete's all to brief set ended with all of us singing "I shall Not be Moved" and "We Shall Overcome..." As the photo shows, Donna overcame her shyness pretty quickly...
Pete,Vinnie, and Donna (John background)
Although we woul d have gladly left on this note, Dan asked us to do a few songs to wrap things up. We agreed, and, in keeping with the mood of the day, Rick asked Ed and Mike to join us.. During the final tune, "I Really Had a Ball Last Night," Pete came out and started dancing around behind the stage... For a man of nearly 80yrs, Pete can "shake it" pretty good...
After the set we had a few moments to talk to Pete. He mentioned that he came to RI frequently in to visit his daughter and loved the area. He also mentioned playing at Stone Soup and knowing Richard Walton. He genuinely seemed interested in talking about our music and lives.
Much of our awe-inspired brainfog had by now disapated.. We were able to chat with Pete without drooling or shaking.... We were not exactly old friends, but we had achieved the time honored connection which in some mysterious way binds all musicians.... All in all it really turned out be a pretty fair day..... for a bunch of RI folkies
As we were leaving Dan Searles let it be know that he would love to have us back for some of their "Bigger" festivals. So... we will be returning to Beacon on Sunday June 13, 1999 for their annual Strawberry Festival... Hope to see ya' there...