Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"He Was A Friend of Mine": His Head Uplifted, Singing the Hopes of Change

Mike Stein, an old and dear friend, sent me his words for the organizer who gave us so much. I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night and he looked a lot like Pete.

by Mike Stein

I first recall seeing & hearing Pete perform on a grassy patch at my summer Camp in the early 1960’s.  My camp was in the Bear Mountain area, which was near his home in Beacon, NY.  There was nothing formal or official about it.  I didn’t know who he was – at least, I was not conscious of his fame and notoriety.   He might have played for 15 minutes or 2 hours I don’t know.

What I do remember, vividly, was the song "Abiyoyo."  I was delighted by how he danced around in a circle explaining how the son (in the song) made the monster disappear.  This story & song were delightful and all the more memorable because when he was dancing/prancing around as he sang his boot flew off and landed in my lap!!

Then, I recall how my parents had an album about Pete’s 1963 Concert (I think it was at Carnegie Hall), which focused on the Civil Rights Movement.  Clearly, their support for the Civil Rights Movement and their love & respect for Pete and his politics, made this more acceptable for me. 

Then, in 1965 my parents took me to Westbury, Long Island, where Pete was having a concert.   This was something special about this event, which I was unaware of at the time.  I have since learned that this was the first (or one of the first) public concert after he was no longer ‘Blacklisted’.  But, at 15, all I recall is being so excited that I got his autograph on my change holder that was the only thing I had that he could write on.  That same year my parents took me to my first Anti Viet-Nam War Demonstration. Undoubtedly, they established a foundation of values and beliefs that enabled me create the space for the activism and commitment that has been my life.  I must give them full acknowledgement.

I recall the controversy over his singing ‘Waste Deep in the Big Muddy’ on the Smother Brothers Show on CBS in 1968.  Once again, he stuck to his principles and was eventually allowed to sing the song on prime time National TV.

That was the beginning of my love & admiration for Pete. Through the rest of the 1960’s & 1970’s, 80’s, I saw him in Florida with my parents when Daniel was 2 or 3.  I saw him in California with my cousin Barbara and Jim in Berekley ;I remember how the crowd sang the ‘Internationale’ with such gusto.  There were numerous times in the 80’s, 90’s & 2000’s that we saw him in the NYC area.  I made sure that my family went to see him for the 2nd year in a row at the Thanksgiving Concert at Carnegie Hall with Arlo – the last one just 2 months ago.

And, one of the best concerts, was Pete’s 90th Birthday Party at Madison Square Garden, which we not only were able to take both Katie & Daniel but it was extra special because Jake came up from Philadelphia. to go with us too. He got some great pictures that night!   But in his admirable political consistency he refused to do it unless it benefited one of the political causes he believed in.  Thus it became a benefit for the Clearwater Organization.

And, of course, we ,with Maureen, my wonderful and marvelous partner for nearly 40 years, saw him every year for 35+ years at Clearwater, which we attended faithfully.   This was an event that our kids grew up with and we are very thankful that we could expose them, not simply, to the folk music scene but a Music Festival that was fun, safe, progressive and engaging.  We always were glad that this was part of our family’s tradition.

 But there are three times that I recall most of all.  When I was in DC in 1971 at an anti-war protest I was on a corner with a huge number of people and I saw Pete crossing the street with his banjo across his back.  I screamed out “Pete!” and although he looked over I was simply ‘a face in the crowd’it was so uplifting for me to see him there.   Then, at Clearwater, in 1987 I was carrying Daniel and ran into to Pete walking around the Festival.  He was gracious enough to pose for a picture with my holding Daniel. Then, in 1999, when Daniel was accepted to attend Camp Rising Sun we went to a small celebration for Pete’s 80th Birthday.  We knew that Pete had been a camper there in the 1930’s because Daniel’s saw Pete in a video promoting the Camp.  So, we went to talk with him.  And he was very helpful in providing some perspective about what the Camp was like. And, again, he was gracious and posed for a picture of the three of us.  This time, Daniel was about as tall as Pete!! I will treasure these pictures.

I will always treasure those memories.  Not because I always agree with everything he said or was involved in but because he was such an accessible person who was never interested in personal ego boosting fame but was committed to changing the world through his craft.  He has impacted more people than he probably ever knew.

In the film done as a biography titled “The Power of Song” I recall being struck how his son described that Pete was so often not home as both his financial commitments and political engagement kept him away from the home.  I realized then how much Toshi was the backbone of that family without whom Pete could never have done what he did.  Her story needs to be told with the compassion of her involvement.  I can only say that, I can understand how hard that must have been for Toshi and the kids, but I am glad that Pete was able to be shared with the world around him.

Rest in Peace;  because we will continue to sing your songs and keep the spirit and dedication to peace, ending racism, saving the planet, keeping the Hudson River safe & clean.  As he said on an interview that I heard today on WNYC from 2 years ago:  He was asked about his involvement with the Communist Party and he replied by explaining the impact of Khrushchev’s revelations about the horrors and excesses of the Stalin era.  But he explained that in the context of how our ancestors were “communist” as the cavemen were communal in how they made decisions, hunted and shared food.  And he described how even though lots of people left the Communist Party after those revelations, that there are many people working towards democratic Socialism.  So, even at 92 years old he maintained a clear, conscious & optimistic  progressive perspective and commitment.

His life was exemplary and I hope I can continue through my own involvement and commitment to progressive change.

In admiration of a long life that had a profound impact on my own,
Mike Stein
January 18, 2014

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