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January 28, 2014

To Pete Seeger

Goodbye Pete and thanks.
Pete Seeger just died, and I need to write this because he was the most important public figure in my life. I only met him once, but he was a mentor to me in my days of singing folk songs in public schools and hosting a radio program, for a decade, of American traditional music "With a banjo on my knee", plus a Master's in folklore with a massive song collection and analysis as my thesis. In my 1960's elementary school, we listened to his records and learned the songs by heart. His music rang throughout the anti-war protests and anti-nuclear demonstrations of my teen years (We Shall Overcome). His impact on American politics is great, but his impact on American music even greater. He taught us Americans our own music, not the commercial products forced down our throats. When he was blacklisted and starving, he recorded hundreds of traditional songs in Moe Ashe's tiny Folkways studio, many of which might have been forgotten without his careful conservation. Influenced by his musicologist father and classical musician mother, Pete studied and transcribed and recreated from live musicians (see Rainbow Quest) and scanty recorded sources. He reconstructed a nearly lost heritage that inspired the Folk Revival.

"I showed the kids there's a lot of great music in this country they never played on the radio."

I have his records and books, but I also have several old-time banjos. Would so many people be playing this peculiar instrument without the promotion Pete did for the five-string? Maybe some bluegrass players in the Scruggs style, but not the 60's style folk banjo, frailing, clawhammer, old-time. He drew a banjo on the book he signed for me.

When I met Pete Seeger at his after-concert birthday party in the mid-80's, I was singing regularly in the Sicilian schools with a program of American folk songs and a booklet of translations and historical context. I told him about it and thanked him for his example. He thanked me for keeping the tradition alive, taking it abroad; Carry It On was the name of the book he'd just produced. I had had the impression that he was a crusty New England hermit-type, but he was warm and friendly, wanting to know who I was and how I got to where I was. We shook hands, and later he was given a banjo-shaped birthday cake. After we sang him the song in three-part harmony, Pete gave the first piece to me. It was the best cake of my life.

Carry it on. I tried to copy Pete in my playing and singing and life-style, as did thousands of other people, almost a generation. He always wanted everyone to sing along, and so we did. I'm sure I'll have more to say about Pete Seeger in the coming days, but this is for gratitude and remembrance.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt and Jeff are busy playing banjos and acoustic guitars in the next room, singing at the top of their voices the American Favorite Ballads.