BERKELEY -- A star-studded cast of Pete Seeger friends and admirers -- Holly Near, Ronnie Gilbert, Barbara Dane, Country Joe McDonald, Vicki Randle, Lichi Fuentes, Wavy Gravy and many more -- took the stage at the Freight and Salvage on Feb. 3 to say, "Good night Pete." The activist-folksinger died Jan. 27 at 94.
The energy and vibrant harmonies didn't come just from performers, but from the 500 or so in the standing-room-only audience singing along in Seeger style.
Those unable to squeeze inside watched the concert on a live stream at the East Bay Media Center and on home computers, or listened to KPFA Radio.
While "Good night Pete" was just one of many songfests across the country honoring Seeger, Berkeley claims special ties to him. As Seeger once confided to Councilwoman Linda Maio, when she called to thank him for a song honoring the city, he was conceived here. Seeger's father was a professor in the UC Berkeley music department until 1919, when he was fired just before Seeger's birth, for his outspoken opposition to World War I.
Seeger wrote the song honoring Berkeley from notes someone sent him of a speech Ecology Center Executive Director Martin Bourque made at a recycling conference: "If it can't be ... reused, repaired ... then it should be ... redesigned or removed from production." Seeger added a chorus: "Hooray for the City of Berkeley and its Zero Waste Commission."
Local songwriter Malvina Reynolds collaborated more formally with Seeger. "She'd send the lyrics and he'd send back a tune" on tape, Reynolds' daughter Nancy Schimmel said. Seeger's recording of Reynolds' song "Little Boxes" became a hit in 1963.
The story was different when Seeger recorded Country Joe McDonald's "I Feel Like I'm Fixin'-to-die Rag" for Columbia in 1972. "He had a fight with the distributor, who refused to sell it because it was anti-war," McDonald said in a phone interview.
Spending time with the singer's family in New York, McDonald learned how hard it was for Seeger to decline invitations to perform at benefits. Seeger's wife Toshi would say, "Everyone wants Pete Seeger,'" McDonald recalled, adding the family ignored his advice to be rude to callers.
At the "Good night Pete" concert, McDonald sang "Carry it On," a song he wrote for his mother Florence McDonald, former Berkeley councilwoman and city auditor. He introduced it saying, "I'm going to sing it for Pete and my mother, a couple of good American Communists." The audience cheered.
Eleanor Waldon, co-founder of the Berkeley-based Freedom Song Network, was invited to join Seeger and the folk group The Weavers in the late 1940s, but declined. "I didn't think I was good enough," she told this newspaper.
In the mid-1960s she performed with Seeger, Bernice Johnson Reagon and others in the first integrated concert tour of southern colleges.
Waldon especially admired Seeger for refusing to answer House Un-American Activities Committee questions on Communist affiliations in 1955, not taking the Fifth Amendment, but, she said, "basing his resistance on the First Amendment."
In 2006 she initiated a petition drive to nominate Seeger for the Nobel Peace Prize, which got some 35,000 signatures and a nomination by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Berkeley-Oakland. The 2008 prize, however, went to Barack Obama "who went on to make a pro-war acceptance speech," Waldon said.
Oakland-based singer-activist Barbara Dane met Seeger in 1948, at age 19. She was living in an attic in Detroit "looking for the reds ... to change the world," she said. "There came this lanky guy from New York with his musical message" recruiting people for a Detroit chapter of People's Songs, a network "trying to put the songs back into the unions."
Dane credited Seeger for teaching her that big changes can begin with small ones, though she first found that naive. "But actually," she said, "It's not that you do one or the other -- you have to do all of it."
After the HUAC hearings, Seeger was blacklisted and Dane recalls arranging a concert in a Berkeley school auditorium. She said she appreciated his work with young people to build a movement. "Out of each group comes a group of people that keep it going," she said.
"Good night Pete" emcee Holly Near said she was one of those kids Seeger influenced, but, in a phone interview, cautioned against "romanticizing him."
"I think the greatest way we can pay tribute to Pete is to just get up every day and do the glorious work of being the best human being we know how to be, and to keep music as part of that, because music's such a global communicator," she said. "Carrying it on is what the work is about and what life is about."