Hudson Highlands Hero Dies at 94

Enduring influence on music and river

By Kevin E. Foley

Pete Seeger, Beacon’s favorite son, a champion of the Hudson River’s rescue from destructive pollution, died this week of natural causes. He was 94 years old.

Pete Seeger at the Beacon Sloop Club's Strawberry Festival (Photo by Econosmith.com, courtesy of Clearwater)

Pete Seeger at the Beacon Sloop Club’s Strawberry Festival (Photo by Econosmith.com, courtesy of Clearwater)

Seeger was known worldwide for his folk singing, music writing and political activism. Locally he was seen as a neighbor and friend to many; someone who might on any day be encountered standing alone in a supermarket, drug store or the train station offering a smile or a friendly word.

He was known as someone always willing to pitch in for a worthwhile cause. He appeared at many a Beacon Main Street storefront or classroom or church to show solidarity with others seeking justice or reform or to just play music.

Seeger was an iconic national figure who eschewed the trappings and poses of American celebrity. He was often quoted as saying he liked things simple. When not playing music on the road he preferred the familial hearth and swinging an axe for firewood. But he wasn’t shy about using his influence or presence to further a cause he believed in.

As with anyone whose life spanned nine decades Seeger witnessed many changes in American life. The difference with him was his willingness to effect the changes.

A replica of Pete Seeger's banjo (Photo by Rick Gedney)

A replica of Pete Seeger’s banjo (Photo by Rick Gedney)

He saw the ravages of the Depression and sided and sang with union organizers, served his country in the military during the Second World War, reached stardom at the top of the pop music charts as a member of the Weavers, found himself blacklisted from television and accused of contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about his association with communist organizations, developed a successful solo touring, songwriting and recording career, participated in the civil rights movement and stood with the anti-Vietnam War and subsequent war protestors. Already in his 90s, he visited with the Occupy Wall Street protestors in New York City.

For all his association with leftist politics and the condemnation sometimes associated with it nationally and locally, Seeger eventually accepted accolades and honors from presidents and national cultural organizations as his views became more mainstream and his musical contributions were more deeply appreciated by subsequent generations. He has left an indelible footprint in the worlds of music and activist politics. He viewed the two involvements as inextricably linked and made no compromises in one for the other.

Pete Seeger leads a sing-along at the Beacon Sloop Club, December 2012 (Photo by Kate Vikstrom)

Pete Seeger leads a sing-along at the Beacon Sloop Club, December 2012 (Photo by Kate Vikstrom)

A Beacon resident for over a half century, Seeger’s most enduring contributions locally will be first his advocacy for cleaning the Hudson River and helping people see it as a living organism rather than a repository for industrial waste and residential sewerage. While protecting the river’s ecology is now a consensus public perspective, it was hardly the case when Seeger first promoted the cause with his sailing boat, the sloop Clearwater.

Secondly, Seeger also had an abiding influence on many local musicians whatever their personal styles of playing. He spent many hours listening, critiquing, collaborating and playing music with a wide variety of people.

Our other stories posted at Philipstown.info explore these contributions with those who worked and played with Seeger.


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5 thoughts on “Hudson Highlands Hero Dies at 94

  1. I intend to put my flag, as soon as I can find it, at half mast for Pete, a great American. I would like everyone else to also. I may leave it up indefinitely. He made me proud to be an American — actually, proud to be a member of the human race. I will miss you, Pete.

  2. Pete Seeger was a real gentleman. Every time he came into the supermarket he was so polite to ask where the Haagen Daas ice cream was. You don’t find that many people like that in today’s society. He will be missed by many people. A true gem.

  3. Several years ago when I was reporting for the PCNR I interviewed Pete Seeger at the Beacon Strawberry Festival. I had hoped to sit with him at one of the many picnic tables to gather his comments – but there was no getting Pete to sit down. I could barely keep up as he went about his festival duties. What I remember most was his manner in responding to all of my questions. He never hesitated, was firm in his convictions, often passionate – and always so civil in tone. When I asked him what he thought of music today versus that of decades past he said, “There’s more good music and more good young musicians now than ever.” It was the year of the McCain-Obama election and I asked him what he hoped the outcome would be. He said that no matter who won he hoped the new President would have the ability to bring people together who disagree strongly on important issues – to talk about how to resolve them. It was vintage Pete. That night I emailed my sister in Ontario, bragging a bit that I had interviewed Pete Seeger. To my surprise her husband responded saying that he had learned to play banjo on a Pete Seeger model. It seems there was no “six degrees of separation” when it came to Pete Seeger. He had a positive impact on so many people. Thanks Pete.

  4. First time I met Pete, in the early ’70s, I was driving up Main Street and saw this tall, lanky guy carrying a large music case, after just having gotten off the train. Recognized him and asked if he needed a ride. He replied, “No thanks, my ride is coming.” Shortly, his wife Toshi arrived, but saw him number of times after that walking up Main Street with a music instrument, after getting off the train.

  5. The audience in this picture is not too shabby either. Sitting there watching Pete is the beloved Esther Baumgarten. I miss them both.