Chesco musicians recall Pete Seeger

This May 13, 1975, file photo shows folk singer Pete Seeger, left, performing at the Rally for DÈtente at Carnegie Hall in New York. The American troubadour, folk singer and activist Seeger died Monday Jan. 27, 2014, at age 94. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

EAST GOSHEN — Jim Musselman spent several hours on the telephone Monday night talking with some of the giants of the music industry – Bruce Springsteen, Roger McGuinn, and Bonnie Raitt, among others. But the Chester County resident wasn’t having fun, chatting about Sunday’s Grammy awards. Instead, he was sadly informing them of, and commiserating with them over the death that night of Pete Seeger, the internationally known and influential folk music troubadour and social activist who died in a New York City hospital at age 94, he said Tuesday.

Musselman, through his imprint label Appleseed Records, located in his home outside West Chester, had worked with all those artists and more in sharing the joy of making music with and for Seeger. The “godfather of folk music” recorded a series of Grammy nominated CDs for Appleseed and became a close friend of Musselman’s.

“The outpouring of grief has just been unbelievable from everyone,” he said of his conversations with artists and news organizations across the glove. “Pete was there for everything. He was the link between Woody Guthrie and Martin Luther King Jr., and was there for every major social justice movement – there at the forefront with his songs and his banjo.”

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“I just saw him very recently,” Musselman said in an interview on Tuesday. “He was still performing concerts and was very vibrant, chopping wood and living his life fully.”

Musselman’s fondest memory of Seeger was of being by his side in the woods of his New York home, chopping wood and singing.

“He was always singing,” he said.

The banjo-picking troubadour who sang for migrant workers, college students and star-struck presidents in a career that introduced generations of Americans to their folk music heritage died peacefully in his sleep around 9:30 p.m. at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he had been for six days. Family members were with him.

“He was chopping wood 10 days ago,” his grandson Kitama Cahill-Jackson confirmed.

With his lanky frame, use-worn banjo and full white beard, Seeger was an iconic figure in folk music who outlived his peers. He performed with the great minstrel Woody Guthrie in his younger days and wrote or co-wrote, “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” He lent his voice against Hitler and nuclear power. A cheerful warrior, he typically delivered his broadsides with an affable air and his fingers poised over the strings of his banjo.

The Weavers, a quartet organized in 1948, helped set the stage for a national folk revival. The group — Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman — churned out hit recordings of “Goodnight Irene,” “Tzena, Tzena” and “On Top of Old Smokey.”

Seeger also was credited with popularizing “We Shall Overcome,” which he printed in his publication “People’s Song” in 1948. He later said his only contribution to the anthem of the civil rights movement was changing the second word from “will” to “shall,” which he said “opens up the mouth better.”

“Every kid who ever sat around a campfire singing an old song is indebted in some way to Pete Seeger,” Arlo Guthrie once said.

That description would apply to Todd Tyson, the founder and artistic director of the former Turtle Dove Folk Music Club, which held concerts in the West Grove Friends Meetinghouse for a number of years when he lived in Unionville and Coatesville, Chester County.

“In 1963, when I was going to day camp as a child, I remember singing Pete Seeger songs on the bus ride to the camp,” Tyson, who now lives in Vermont, said in an interview. “I highly, highly admired him for decades, and I think that the songs of Pete Seeger were responsible for my becoming aware of a wider world. Not just about the music, but about the messages in the songs.”

Although Tyson said that he knew of artists who performed at the Turtle Dove shows who used Seeger as a touchstone, he also knew of young artists who just as avidly followed his activist example, including his effort to clean up the Hudson River, near where he lived.

“He made a difference in the world,” Tyson said.

Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 as an early influence. Ten years later, Bruce Springsteen honored him with “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” a rollicking re-interpretation of songs sung by Seeger that was inspired by Musselman’s introduction of Seeger’s songs to the superstar.

While pleased with the album, Seeger said he wished it was “more serious.” A 2009 concert at Madison Square Garden to mark Seeger’s 90th birthday featured Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Eddie Vedder and Emmylou Harris among the performers.

This month, Seeger was a 2014 Grammy Awards nominee in the Best Spoken Word category, which Stephen Colbert won. He continued to take part in peace protests during the war in Iraq, and he continued to lend his name to causes, including the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City.

When the album of songs by Seeger that were sung by a multitude of modern artists, including Springsteen, Riatt, Jackson Brown, and John Fogarty, was released to acclaim in the late 1990s, a former Daily Local News staff writer, John Crawford, was assigned to profile the independent record producer and his company.

“Jim Musselman asked me, ‘Do you want to talk to Pete?’,” Crawford recalled on Tuesday. “And I said ‘sure.’ I called his number, and a woman answered. She asked did I want to talk with him and when I said yes, it was no problem. There was no celebrity fuss. She wasn’t a gatekeeper. She just said, ‘I’ll go get him. He’s getting sap from the trees.’”

Even today, Crawford marvels at the notion that Seeger was outside in the woods, doing something as elemental as gathering wood sap.

“How you would imagine him to be, that is how he was,” said Crawford, a writer now living in the Boston area. “His public persona as an average guy with a passion for what was in his heart, was who he really was.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Information from the Daily Local News, www.dailylocal.com