The proudest line in my resume is, “One of my books is in Pete Seeger’s bathroom.”
I don’t actually remember which book it was, but when the publisher sent me about 50 copies to give away for publicity purposes, I mailed one to Pete Seeger and another to Bruce Springsteen. Most of the book had been written while listening to their music, so I figured I owed them.
After about a month, the book to Springsteen was returned to me from his agent’s office with a note that said they didn’t accept unsolicited packages. About the same time I got a letter from Pete Seeger that read, in part, “I read your good book and left it in the bathroom for the rest of the family to read.”
Be still my heart.
Pete died last week. He had a good run; I believe he was 94. It was an interesting life . . . trying to make a living as a musician during the depths of the Depression, hitchhiking across the country with Woody Guthrie, being called to testify during the McCarthy era by the Committee on Un-American Activities, teaching “We Shall Overcome” to Martin Luther King Jr., sitting next to a First Lady as a Kennedy Center honoree, and, finally, singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a presidential inauguration.
I’ve always loved the story of him testifying before Congress. He’d acquired some dubious acquaintances over the years, and Congress wanted him to come down and squeal on them. He said he wouldn’t.
They asked him if he was going to plead the Fifth Amendment, the one that lets you avoid incriminating yourself.
He said, “No, I’m pleading the First Amendment. I’m an American . . . I can talk to anyone I want to, and it’s none of your business.”
They convicted him of Contempt of Congress . . . a crime that’s becoming increasingly common.
I feel like I’ve lost an old friend, even though our only acquaintance was a letter, two postcards, and a brief meeting about 20 years ago, after a concert in the Twin Cities. We took the whole family . . . It was a fund-raiser for a charity and when we arrived, we found that there were two tiers of seating, depending on how expensive your tickets were. As you can imagine, the Olson Clan was up in the nosebleed section, and we were a little jealous of the people in the front rows, because the price of their tickets included a private reception with Pete. After the concert, my 10-year-old daughter and I lurked outside the reception area hoping for an autograph as he breezed through with his entourage. He didn’t come while we stood there, and we could tell from the smattering of conversation that we could overhear when the doors of the reception area opened that he wasn’t already in there.
After a few minutes I noticed a little disturbance in the now dark and deserted concert hall. I peeked around the corner and there was Pete, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the stage, talking to a group of children. My daughter took her program to get signed and Pete said, “It’s a little silly, me signing this for you just because I’m good at singing and ice skating. You’re probably really good at something, too, and I should be asking for your autograph.”