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AND A TIME FOR EVERY PURPOSE…..

So I was thinking about how my desire to meet Pete Seeger was wrapped up in wanting to give him copies of my two newest CD’s; and that, in my head, I entertained these fantasies about just having a chance to hang out and talk music with him, or maybe even break out the guitars (or his signature banjo) and play a few tunes together.  And I considered the possibility (and the likelihood) that part of this was all wrapped up in Pete serving as something of a surrogate father (and grandfather) figure in my head and heart. 

At the same time, I was feeling less and less comfortable with the audaciousness of my initial impulses.  Who the hell did I think I was, after all?!? The man didn’t know me from Adam! And so it was, come Tuesday morning, that while talking with Mr. Seeger on the phone, I was more than happy when he gave me an address whereby I might send him my CD’s.

“I have to tell you that I have a pile of about 50 CD’s from folk who want me to listen to them, and I aim to listen to all of them,” he told me.

“I understand and appreciate that,  Mr.  Seeger.  I would just be very pleased if I could add mine to that pile.”

He asked me my name again.  Then he spelled out my last name, to make sure he had it right.  I told him he had it just right, and for some reason he chuckled a bit at that. 

As adventures go, this is a somewhat small and benign one.  I will be mailing off those CD’s this week, along with a cover letter, providing a bit more of an introduction to both me and my music.  I hope to make said cover letter reasonably short, and hopefully entertaining enough that I will elicit another chuckle, rather than be regarded as a nuisance.  And I still hold on to the hope that someday, I might be able to shake the hand of this man, smile, and tell him how genuinely pleased I am to make his acquaintance.

And with that, Pony and I grabbed a bit of breakfast at the I-84 Diner (near Fishkill), packed up the RV, and had a pleasant and relatively short trip back to Jefferson Township and the Mahlon Dickerson Reservation, in New Jersey.  Rufus was extremely excited to get back to a familiar place, acting as if we had come home.  And Pony and I felt a bit like that, as well.

 

THERE IS A SEASON

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. 

 

TO EVERYTHING…

“Hello,” said a voice on the other end of the phone; a baritone voice with a slightly gruff edge and warm tone to it.”

“Is this Pete Seeger?” I asked.

“Yes, who would you be?”

Who, indeed!

After the gigs in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, Pony and I were heading back south.  There’s an open stage in Morristown, New Jersey, that I wanted to see if I might get in on, and we thought we would return to the Mahlon Dickerson Reservation, in Jefferson Township, to attend to a variety of tasks, both relating to business as well as mundane things like laundry and such.  But I had something of a quest, as well.  I knew that Pete Seeger lived in the Hudson Valley, and I thought to see if I could make his acquaintance somehow.  With the ever-so-handy internet, I had even managed to scare up a phone number to try.  I tried calling on Sunday evening, and was answered by what I assume to have been a daughter or grand-daughter or some member of the family, who told me that things were still a bit busy at the moment.

And that was the thing.  In my research, I also discovered that Pete’s wife, Toshi, had passed away a few months ago.  They had been married for some 70 years (give or take), and I could imagine the loss of such a long-time companion would not be an easy thing to adjust to. 

Still, we drove down to the Hudson Valley, to a town near the one that Pete lives in, and for the first time, we dry-camped in a Walmart parking lot (along with some half a dozen other RV’s). 

“Mr. Seeger, my name is Michael Engberg.  I’m a musician from Colorado, on tour to promote my latest CD’s.  I’m a friend of Harry Tufts, who runs the Denver Folklore Center, and he has always spoken very highly of you.”

Strictly speaking, all of that was true.  For the record, Harry had not necessarily suggested I try to look up Pete while tour, but I just left that part out.  I told Pete that there was a song on one of my new CD’s that was inspired by one of his songs, and that I was passing through the neighbourhood, as it were, and wanted to pay my respects and hand him off a copy of the CD.  I told him our RV was parked in a Walmart parking lot in Fishkill. I asked if I might be able to buy him lunch, or coffee, or a beer.

“Well, I’m at home, with plenty to do, and my home is at the top of a steep hill, so I don’t think that would work,” he replied. 

It was only later, after the phone conversation, that I realized he was concerned as to whether or not our RV could make it up the hill.  I had forgot to mention that we have a tow car for short hops that could make it up most hills, no matter how steep.  Pony later remarked that I should not have bothered mentioning the RV at all, but rather should have just said we were in town. 

Yeah, that might have worked better.