A Fast One for Pete Seeger
Family letters shake loose the past
This Veterans Day, I’m thinking of my father and Pete Seeger.
December 1950: my father, Paul Greenberg, was laid up in a military hospital in Fort Belvoir, Va., soon to ship overseas for Army combat in Korea. Just before he left for basic training in September, he and my mother, Esther Novogrodsky, eloped. He was 22, she 18. I recently found a letter that he wrote to her on December 22 of that year, his 23rd birthday, telling her about a visit he he had with Pete Seeger and the Weavers in Washington, D.C.
I pulled a fast one on Wednesday. I went out of the hospital but I did not go out with the company for training. The officers were all away and I went to Washington and I saw Pete Seeger.
My father died in 1997, just shy of his 70th birthday. As I’ve tried to document and understand my father’s legacy as an activist in the labor, peace and civil rights movements, Pete Seeger has been an abiding presence. For one thing, Pete’s 1963 Carnegie Hall concert, with its sequence of freedom songs, and his equally wonderful Children’s Concert at Town Hall, were part of the soundtrack my childhood. But also, there’s always been a clear sense that Pete and Dad were closely tied in the same struggles and that Pete’s music was not just the soundtrack of my childhood but the soundtrack of my father’s political coming of age. Sometime in the last decade or so of his life, my father recalled:
In 1946 realizing that I wasn’t going to make a living at music I got a job for 15 dollars a week with the CIO and went to Winston Salem North Carolina to help organize the Winston Salem Tobacco Company. It was a massive effort that failed. The company is still not union. It was here that I first saw and heard Pete Seeger. It was at the end of the road when the National Guard had broken the Union that those who held the line were taught the adaptation of the spiritual I Will Overcome with the new words We Shall Overcome. It was Zilphia Horton of the Highlander Folk School who came and taught it to us. I can still hear her slightly shrill soprano with a tear drop in its sound and I can still feel the sense of power in defeat as we joined hands for our last walk on the picket line.
My father felt close to Pete and as a result, so do I. But everybody feels close to Pete. He puts the folk into folk musician. Pete is a musician’s musician with that unsurpassed capacity to reach his audience and make them feel intimately joined with him in freedom songs—whether you were there with him on picket lines and civil rights campaigns while he was in his prime, or listening to the recordings 50 years later, or watching him, in his 90s, his singing voice mostly gone, energizing Occupy Wall Street or performing a song for his departed friends Rosa Parks and Dr. King on the Letterman Show.
I’ve always known Pete is a part of the history of my father that I’ve been seeking to understand, but there’s been little in the way of details, until a couple of weeks ago, when I finally took the plunge and began to sort through the large collection of letters my parents exchanged during the two years my father served in the Army for the Korean War. I’ve had the letters for the last three years but had put off looking through them because of what would be involved in ordering, scanning and transcribing them.
I knew my father and Pete Seeger had history together in the early 1960s with the civil rights and peace movements. The photo of Pete Seeger, above, for example, comes from an anti-nuclear march on the UN led by my father and Bayard Rustin, Easter 1961. At the time, my father was executive director of the Greater New York Council for a Sane Nuclear Policy. And I remember going with my father in the early 1980s to see Pete perform somewhere in the Albany, NY area, I think at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Afterwards Dad took me up front to meet Pete. But their history and friendship runs deeper and longer than I realized.
Friday Dec 22, 1950
It was good to hear your voice. I couldn’t say much as I was sort of choked up. This is a terrible way to spend your birthday. I miss you terribly.
It just started snowing here. It looks beautiful but I feel sorry for the kids who are in training.
I pulled a fast one on Wednesday. I went out of the hospital but I did not go out with the company for training. The officers were all away and I went to Washington and I saw Pete Seeger. He was wonderful to me. He took me to a steak lunch and I saw the show he and the Weavers are in. The other acts were pretty corny and vulgar but the Weavers are wonderful. Pete tells me that Irene is the second biggest selling record Decca Records has ever had. It has sold somewhere near 2 million copies. They have some new records coming out. So Long it’s been good to know you …, Lee’s song Lonesome Traveling, Fireship and John B Sails are the songs coming out. Pete says Fireship is awful but the others are pretty good. They expect Lonesome Traveling and So Long to be big hits. The whole Seeger family has moved to Pete’s house in Beacon. The MacDougal Street apt is boarded up and will be torn down. We are invited to spend a vacation there anytime we wish. Maybe when I get a furlough we will go for a few days. Pete has written me words to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” They are wonderful. In their dressing room the Weavers sung them for me. On the stage the group is wonderful. The audience loved them. They sang Tzena, Irene, John B, Lonesome Traveling, Hey Laili Laili … and a few others. They literally had the audience in cheers….
The snow has completely covered the ground. Outside everything looks clean and comfortable. Like clean sheets when you are tired. I find it difficult to concentrate on a letter. I think it is because I am doped up with medicine. Sometimes I feel like I am drunk. I guess there is some codeine in some of the pills I take. I hope they decide I do not have rheumatic fever. If I do it would probably mean several months in the hospital. That is something I do not look forward to. I have too much nervous energy to be able to be bed ridden that long. Besides it would preclude leaves home and that is a wretched thought. I think constantly of all the nice things we will be able to do when I can be home for a little while.
With all my love
My father had planned, at first, to be a conscientious objector. On July 9, 1950, before my parents were married, he wrote to my mother:
You know that I couldn’t even think of going into the American army now. I would rather die than fight or even train to fight in this filthy business. I don’t know what the form of the draft is going to be or what the organized resistance is going to be like but as of know I think my own personal fight will be to refuse to register and as best possible let it be known publicly that I won’t fight a war for the protection of the right to exploit workers wether they be Korean or American.
But he did go on to train and fight just a couple months later. What changed his mind, I don’t yet know. Still other letters sent home from Korea and Japan show that he remained deeply troubled by the Korean War as he served his country. I think this is the Pete Seeger song Dad would say to play for Veterans Day.
Note: Some of this post was previously published in different form on my blog, http://benlog.net.