There’s a bit of some personal history in my quest to meet Pete Seeger. Growing up in Burlington, Iowa, I was a frequent visitor to the Public Library (still am, when I get back to Burlington; as well as libraries all over the country, at this point). Like most libraries, the one in Burlington has a collection of vinyl records that I would rummage through from time to time. It was in that collection of vinyl that I first discovered Andres Segovia and Pete Seeger.
Pete Seeger introduced me to folk music. The album had him playing a collection of his hits: “To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)”, “The Bells of Rhymney”, “We Shall Overcome”, a sprightly little instrumental thing called “Living In The Country”, and (of course) “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” (which I almost quote in my song, “The Great Grandma Batter Battle”). These, and many more had already become campfire staples that I had heard over the years while attending summer camp, and later learned to play and sing as a camp counsellor. I read about Pete Seeger: his working with Woodie Guthrie, their work with the union movement and other social causes, his work in the 60’s in the Civil Rights movement, and much more besides.
I mentioned that I also discovered Andres Segovia. While Pete Seeger showed me the many and various possibilities as a folk musician, Segovia (who often called the guitar “a miniature orchestra in a box”) showed me just how versatile and expressive the guitar could be. I got to see Segovia, at Carnegie Hall, in 1981. He was in his 80’s himself, yet still playing beautifully. Segovia died at the age of 93, and was playing recitals and leading master classes up to a few months before his death. I have remarked to many of my friends that I hope to be so lucky; to do this thing I love so much over the course of a long and rich life.
It seems to me the same could be said for Pete Seeger. He is in his 90’s, still playing on occasion, still mentoring many other musicians. So in this way, as well, he becomes an inspiration for me.
But there I was, on a Monday evening, less than a dozen miles from his house, and I found myself engaging in a bit of arm chair psychology, as I sought to understand what was behind this particular quest of mine. The thing is, my father passed away some three or so years ago. One of the things I have dearly missed is how in any given week I would call my Dad and let him know what I was up to: recording a new song, playing this or that new gig, teaching a new class, or whatever. And while Dad never had quite the same sense of adventure as I did (he was fond of saying that he was born in Burlington and he would die in Burlington, and he did), he was always ready to hear of my latest adventure.
But my father was never a musician. My grandfather, Al Engberg, had been a trumpet player. He played in the Burlington Municipal Band, as well as the occasional dance band that would play in town. I have this one very vivid memory of my Grandfather Engberg: there had been something of a family gathering that started as a picnic and ended up with most of the relatives congregating at the Nira Tavern (the tavern Grandpa Engberg started in 1933, when Prohibition was repealed). Someone played a song on the juke box, called “The Twist”, and everyone knew the dance that went with it, but no one was willing to get up and try it. Except me and Grandpa. I was about five years old then. Grandpa died about three years later, so I never got to know him all that well, and I never had a chance to talk with him about music.