Folk musician, environmentalist was longtime Beacon resident
The folk-music singer and activist Pete Seeger, a longtime resident of Beacon, had agreed to perform in 1975 at a ceremony for the Balmville Tree, a 17th-century eastern cottonwood named for the Town of Newburgh community where it stood.
Then, Newburgh school district Superintendent Edwin Klotz found out.
In a letter to the Town Board, Klotz called Seeger a “left-wing extremist” who was “not the kind of ‘dignitary’ we want our students to look up to.”
“Mr. Seeger may be known for his advocacy of a cleaner Hudson River and other ecological projects, but he is also a veteran supporter of causes that are hardly exemplary for the young people of our community,” Klotz wrote.
Considered an icon for marrying his music to causes like civil and workers’ rights, anti-war efforts and environmentalism, Seeger (who died in 2014 at age 94) was hated by others for the same reason and once sentenced to a year in prison for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee. (The sentence was thrown out on appeal.)
Now, he is now receiving one of the most-American of honors.
The U.S. Postal Service announced on Nov. 1 that Seeger’s image will grace a first-class stamp to be issued next year. It will be the tenth imprint of a Music Icons series that has included Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and John Lennon.
More 2022 Stamps
In addition to Pete Seeger, the USPS announced stamps honoring:
Katherine Graham (1917-2001), the former owner and president of The Washington Post Co., and publisher of its flagship newspaper;
Eugenie Clark (1922-2015), a marine biologist who advocated the protection of sharks and marine environments;
Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907), considered the first Black and Native American sculptor to achieve worldwide fame; and
George Morrison (1919-2000), a founding figure in Native American modernist art.
Other new stamps will feature the Lunar New Year (Tiger), blueberries, butterfly garden flowers, sunflower bouquets, tulips, women’s rowing, national marine sanctuaries, pony cars, the Mississippi River, elephants, mountain flora and the 50th anniversary of Title IX.
The stamp is based on a photograph taken in the 1960s by his son, Dan Seeger.
In retrospectives published in The Current four days after Seeger’s death and to mark what would have been his 100th birthday, Highlands residents shared anecdotes of him serving strawberry shortcake at a riverfront festival, singing Christmas carols on Main Street, playing his banjo at local restaurants like BJs and founding the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. parade and a music group for local children.
Manna Jo Greene, an Ulster County legislator and environmental director for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, the Beacon-based environmental organization Seeger founded in 1966 with his late wife, Toshi, said the singer and Martin Luther King Jr. were the “greatest influences” on her life.
She recalled once running into Seeger at Grand Central Station, where they both waited for a train to the Hudson Valley. She watched as he introduced himself to a young man carrying a guitar and they continued talking on the ride north.
“I just thought, as world famous and renowned as he is, he’s so humble and approachable,” she said. “The fact that the Postal Service is celebrating Pete Seeger’s life is such a vindication — that the truth will out. He stood for so many just causes, and was persistent throughout his life and consistent, and he ended up, in this case, triumphing.”
Seeger’s accomplishments include iconic songs such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “If I Had a Hammer”; three Grammy Awards; and a book, Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, written with Woody Guthrie about folk songs from the Depression and labor movements of the 1930s. Seeger was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
Thirty years earlier, Pete and Toshi, who died in 2013, had founded Clearwater to fight for a cleanup of the estuary, a “foul sewer of a waterway” that was a dumping ground for industrial and municipal waste, Greene said.
The Seegers and the organization, which built a sloop named Clearwater in 1969, were at the forefront of a movement that led to the passage, in 1972, of the Clean Water Act.
Pete Seeger was already stamped in the hearts of the working people of USA and Canada to whom he dedicated his art.
In the late 1950s, the National Federation of Labour Youth (NFLY) sponsored a national tour for Pete Seeger to raise funds for our newspaper Champion. I led the committee that sponsored his concert at the Slovak Hall in Fort William Ontario and my late wife Sylvia Bradley did likewise at the Dark Hall in Regina Saskatchewan. Pete gave it his all in spite of modest attendance.
We are all waiting the day when Paul Robeson will likewise be officially recognized for his towering artistry in his homeland as he is already internationally immortalized in the hearts of millions who labour, for his steadfast courageous partisanship for world peace and Soviet socialism.
Slocan, British Columbia, Canada
With all due respect, Mr. Seeger was a card carrying member of the American Communist Party for four decades, during which time he praised ‘great leaders’ such as Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khruschev, as well as Fidel Castro. A U.S. stamp in his honor? I hardly think so. Light turnout in Saskatch? Could be he was a mediocre musician. R.I.P.
Here is a more nuanced discussion of Seeger’s politics.
Pete Seeger was so much more than a proud American who fought for his country, both as a U.S. soldier in World War II and then for the rest of his life as a singer, activist, environmentalist and humanitarian.
His or anyone’s beliefs, opinions and political affiliations are exactly what our democracy and Constitution defends, and thus he would have been the first to forgive you for misstating the facts. To wit, Seeger was a member of the American Communist Party for only eight years (1942-1950), not four decades, and in a 1997 autobiography called Josef Stalin a “supremely cruel misleader.”
Seeger was not a perfect human being, but a mediocre musician? With all due respect, one does not rise to the very top of any profession by being mediocre. Pete Seeger was and is the quintessential American folk singer, and is an enduring American hero. He was also our neighbor, and I for one will be proud to have his U.S. stamp adorn my letters.
Pete Seeger loved Beacon so much that he invested time, energy and money to make this town a bulwark against unsound environmental policies. Like hundreds of thousands of others, he was particularly offended and disappointed when America strayed, as it so often has, from the noble ideals upon which it was founded.
As a labor lawyer inspired by Pete, and on his behalf, you are welcome for the weekend and the eight-hour day, as well as your right to spew against a man who has passed but more importantly passed on his spirit.