Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger Memories by Camilla McGuinn

"Pete Seeger was the person who inspired me to play 5-string banjo, 12-string guitar and to achieve my life long dream of becoming a troubadour. It was his guitar and banjo style that I carried over into the instrumental sound of the BYRDS. I will always admire his positive influence on the world and on my life. We will all miss him." Roger McGuinn, January 28, 2014

Roger always wakes me every morning with a song and a cup of tea. Today, after he sang the morning song, he said, “Pete Seeger quietly passed away last night.”

Our morning walk was filled with our Pete Seeger memories.

Before I fell in love with Roger, my pathways were filled with some impressive individuals. I worked with George Burns on a TV show.  I sat next to Frank Sinatra at an intimate dinner gathering of friends. But, it wasn’t until Roger introduced me to Earl Scruggs and then Pete Seeger did I become speechless.

Elvis Presley was Jim’s inspiration for picking up a guitar. He was fascinated with the rock-a-billy sound he heard on his transistor radio. Music consumed his every thought and school was just a drag. Getting kicked out of study hall for playing his guitar was so normal that the headmaster of the Latin School of Chicago was mildly amused at how often Jim McGuinn was sitting in his office.

There were only two classes Jim enjoyed; physics and Miss Ganter’s music class. His music teacher changed the direction of Jim’s life when she invited her friend, Bob Gibson to perform at the school.

Mr. Gibson entered from the side of the stage with his instrument head stock first. Immediately Jim perked up. He thought it was a guitar but his heart sank when he realized it was a banjo. The teenage sulking moment lasted until Bob Gibson began his innovative banjo picking and telling of stories. Then Jim’s posture changed in his seat and his attention didn’t swerve for a second. He was hooked.

Bob Gibson left the building. Jim eagerly ran to Miss Ganter with a new born quest. He had to find out what was that kind of music he had just heard. She smiled. One of her star pupils wanted to know more about something. “That is folk music and there is a new school opening up close by called the “Old Town School of Folk Music.”

It was at the Old Town School under the tutelage of Frank Hamilton, where Jim learned about Pete Seeger. He even bought a Pete Seeger long neck banjo to learn the intricate picking styles that he carried into the sound of the BYRDS.

Over the years, Jim rode the rocket of rock and roll with the techniques and songs of Pete Seeger.

The 1980s were quiet years. In 1982, Roger began his lifelong dream of being a troubadour just like Pete Seeger and Bob Gibson. He made me his road manager and we traveled the world.

Toward the end of the 80s, Roger decided to quit performing two shows a night. He didn’t feel two shows in one night were fair to the audiences. He had to hold back some of his energy on the first show to be ready for the second. Because of that decision, the Bottom Line in New York City was now off his touring roster.

Allan Pepper, the club owner, really wanted Roger to play in commemoration of the Bottom Line’s twentieth anniversary since Roger was one the first acts to perform on his stage. Roger played the Bottom Line one more time for Allan. After the two concerts I went to Allan’s office. That often felt like going to the principal’s office. After finishing the business side of the evening, Allan told me that he really wanted Roger to be part his Songwriter Series.  Without even much thought, I said, “If you can get Pete Seeger, Roger will do it.” I knew there was nothing more in the world that Roger wanted but to be on the same stage with Pete Seeger. He almost had a chance several times, but somehow the opportunity was always withdrawn.

The following Monday, I picked up the phone and it was the crusty Allan Pepper, but he sounded as excited as a high school kid. “I just called Pete’s house and he answered! I asked him if he would do the series with Roger McGuinn.” Pete told him, “He is a good kid. Sure I’ll do it.” Allan and I were both laughing with total joy.

Allan then got very serious. “I want this to be special. Give me time to think about the other two songwriters I will invite. I’ll let you know.”

We walked into the Bottom Line around 4pm for the sound check, or maybe I should say, we floated into the Bottom Line. Our excitement was so intense that Roger had stage fright the minute he opened his guitar case. The other performers came in after us. Ted Hawkins, a street busker from Los Angeles who received fame in Europe but never in the United States, Joe South, a renowned songwriter and Pete Seeger, the consummate folk singer. Roger was very humbled to be on the stage with these men.

The sound check was short and we were hungry. I was standing at the foot of the stage with Allan Pepper when I motioned to Roger to ask Pete if he would like to join us for dinner. Pete said yes! Allan and I couldn’t contain the look of happiness on our faces, we felt like the audience in a moment of history.

Pete, Roger and I walked to Minetta Tavern where we were meeting Don DeVito, Roger’s old friend from Columbia Records and producer of “Thunderbyrd.” As we walked, Pete told Roger that Frank Hamilton, Roger’s guitar and banjo teacher and Pete’s replacement in the Weavers, was the arranger on “We Shall Overcome.” He also stopped and talked to a young man about a tree in the park.

We were already sitting at the table when Don arrived. He broke into a big grin when he saw Pete. It was before cell phones, so we didn’t have a chance to tell him of the special guest we were bringing. The dinner hour was spent with all three men telling stories. I was again a member of the audience. Don picked up the dinner check that night with great joy.

 It began to drizzle when we left Minetta’s. We had only one umbrella. I ran to a shop and bought the biggest umbrella I could find for $10. It was huge and grey. We still have it and immediately began calling it the Pete Seeger memorial umbrella. The evening was already a wonderful memory. I felt like I just had dinner with Santa Claus.
Ted Hawkins, Joe South, Pete Seeger, Roger McGuinn

Vin Scelsa, the moderator, began the evening introducing all four gentlemen as they took seats. Ted Hawkins was stage right. Joe South and Pete Seeger were stage center and Roger was stage left. Each songwriter took turns singing some of the songs they had written. When Joe South sang, “Games People Play” Pete jumped out of his chair and hugged him saying, “I always wanted to know who wrote that song!”

To close the show, Vin asked each writer to sing a song they wished they had written. Roger sang “Turn,Turn, Turn” to end the first concert but he surprised everyone at the end of the second concert. He sang, “Bells of Rhymney.” Two songs Pete Seeger had penned from classic writings.

Backstage at the Bottom Line was small. There were two dressing rooms. We shared a room with Joe South and his wife. After the final concert while chatting with them about the joys of train travel , Pete came to the door and quietly said, “ ‘Bells of Rhymney.’ I've never heard it sung so well.” Roger and I both had tears rolling down our faces when Pete left the room.

Elizabeth Rush called and told me a man from the program “Kennedy Center Honors” wanted to have Roger on the show. I had never heard of the show, but called to find out what they wanted. What they wanted was for Roger to appear with Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie to give tribute to Pete Seeger. Once again, I didn’t even have to check with Roger. The answer was, “He would be most honored.”

There was one small problem for us. I had just gotten out of surgery. Standing for long periods would be impossible and the recording of the show in Washington DC consisted of three days of receptions and dinners, but to be in the presence of Pete Seeger again was worth all the discomfort. 

We were met at the airport by a volunteer. She was a lobbyist and not the first one we were to meet. During the three day affair, she was responsible for us getting to where we needed to be on time.

It is very hard to explain the amazing moments we spent in those three short days. We knew this was different from our normal rock and roll events when at the first morning brunch we found ourselves in the midst of the “A” list.

Five people were being honored: Kirk Douglas, Aretha Franklin, Harold Prince, Morton Gould and Pete Seeger. Their families and friends were all there. You can just imagine some of them. Michael Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Garrison Keillor, Alan Alda and Walter Cronkite to name a few.

A sound check was scheduled for the afternoon. Since I needed to sit down, I decided to go into the auditorium and watch the proceedings. I was the only one sitting in the whole place. Our hostess came walking up to me with a funny look on her face. I imagined I had already done something wrong. She stood next to me looking down at a ticket in her hand with a perplexed look on her face, then she laughed, “You are sitting in the exact seat you have for the ceremony!” Out of 2350 seats, I found my place. 

The first night was a dinner at the State Department. We were excited to see Pete, but Toshi his wife quickly intercepted us and said that he wasn’t supposed to know who was paying tribute to him. It was to be a surprise! We found our table about the same time Joan Baez did. As we were looking at the place cards, she mentioned to me that she didn’t know the people sitting next her and she seemed concerned. I told her I would fix that. I moved the place cards and surrounded her with Arlo and Roger. Now I probably will be black balled from all State Department dinners after they find out about this, but hey, I haven’t been invited back in 20 years, so maybe I have been!

It turned out to be a good thing, me switching those name cards, I ended up sitting next to another lobbyist. But this wasn’t just any lobbyist. She was the first female lobbyist in Washington, DC, Ann Wexler. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening. I didn’t realize how fortuitous sitting next to Ms. Wexler was until the next evening.

Before the Honors ceremony we were all invited to the White House, where President Clinton would present the honorees with a medal. Our lobbyist driver took us to the gate of the House, told us that a bus would take us to the Kennedy Center and after the ceremony she would meet us at the dinner reception. We got out of the car in our finest clothes and she drove off. The guard at the gate asked our names. He looked and looked, but Mr. and Mrs. Roger McGuinn was not on any list. It began to drizzle and we didn’t have the Pete Seeger memorial umbrella with us. Our driver was gone, lines of cars were pulling up and I really wanted to sit down. It seemed our only alternative was to walk to the street, hail a taxi and go straight to the Kennedy Center. Just as we made the decision, Ms. Wexler arrived and came over to us. She asked why were we standing in the wet night air. We told her our dilemma. She walked over to a very important looking man who lowered his head in respect to listen to her. Ms Wexler returned to us and said everything would be all right in just a moment.

A minute later, the important looking man, came up to the gate keeper and in a desperate voice, said ”Ask them if they have a driver’s license.” The gate keeper turned to us with an odd look of shock on his face and asked, “Do you have a driver’s license?” We pulled them out and without even examining them, he turned and hollered to the important man, “Yep they got one.” “ Well, let them in.”

While waiting in the entrance, Roger noticed a sign, “No Cameras”.
“Camilla, do you see that sign?”
“NO.” I wasn’t about to give up my pocket camera. He just shook his head, not the least bit surprised.

The entire “A” list were ushered into a room for the medal ceremony. We were among the last, and I was standing on my toes to see. A beautiful lady I had met at the state department dinner because I complimented her on the stunning dress she wore, noticed me in the back. She motioned for me to come up front with her. I was now right by the platform. Another beautiful woman, a renowned actress, was standing there too and she had a camera like mine. I told her I was so happy to see her camera and she immediately admonished me. She said that if she got into trouble, she was going to blame me. So you understand why I’m not mentioning her name. I think she would find me to this day.

After the ceremony, President Clinton had to leave in the helicopter for an important international meeting. Roger and I watched from the window of a small red room.
Ms. Wexler saw us. ”Have you already gone through the reception line for Mrs. Clinton. “
“No.” We didn’t want to tell her we hadn’t planned on it.
“Well you should. The Christmas Tree is beautiful.”
By then, we would do anything Ms. Wexler told us to do.

We got into the reception line just behind Joan Baez. Roger’s admiration for Joan goes way back, so he is always honored to talk with her. While standing there, the lady behind me got very excited during her conversation and her wine glass spilled onto the back of my dress. Within moments, two stylishly dressed ladies whisked me away to a powder room and began attending to my wet evening gown.

This was turning out to be another interesting blunder.  It was fascinating to listen to the ladies, who worked in the White House, explain to me that this type of accident is the very reason no red wine is served in White House receptions. The carpets are too precious to be harmed by the tip of a glass.

I got back to the reception line just I time to watch Joan Baez talk to Mrs. Clinton. I felt that maybe Mrs. Clinton was a bit in awe of Ms. Baez. Joan was totally serene. It was the only time I ever got to watch the First Lady up close and she surprised me with her charm. She was gracious.

After the reception, I was ready to sit. Roger and I found the bus for the trip to the center and sat in the front seats by the door. Once again, it was hard for us to keep our jaws shut as the “A” list boarded the bus like a college marching band. Joan got on, smiled at Roger and said “Rolling Thunder.” Wow... and all this because Pete Seeger lighted the path for Roger to become a folk singer.

When Roger began the “Folk Den” in 1995, Jim Musselman became intrigued and approached Roger to record some songs on disc for the folks who didn’t know how to download music. That was the moment when the idea to record the “old guard of folk music” in their homes became a reality. We packed our van and drove around the country to record the masters of folk for "Treasures From The Folk Den." Jim, the founder of Appleseed Records, was friends with Pete Seeger. He took us to Pete and Toshi’s home in Beacon, NY.
The original Seeger home built by friends with a hammer.

Pete showed us around the property and explained that he and Toshi wanted some land, but they didn’t have much money. They bought this parcel overlooking the Hudson and began building their home. I smiled when Pete said that every visitor they had was given a hammer. I began humming in my mind, “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning…”

Toshi was a pioneer wife. They met at a square dance in New York City. Pete proudly told us the story of how she put the baby on her hip, walked down the hill with a bucket to the creek  and bought the bucket splashing with water back up the hill. 
Roger recording Pete Seeger for "Treasures From the Folk Den"
Roger recorded Pete in his living room on his laptop computer. I managed to hold the video camera reasonably still during one of the songs.  Toshi walked in, looked at our setup and declared, ”You have a half a million dollar recording studio in a box.” As Roger loves to say,  "She got it!"

After lunch, which Toshi prepared for us, we packed the computer, camera, microphones and headed to Jean Ritchie’s house with a jar of homemade jam that Toshi had given us to give to Jean.

We returned to the Seeger homestead several times. The last time we were there, I was a bit traumatized driving up the rutted road to their house in our van. Pete and Toshi came out to meet us. Then Peter jumped in his car to pick up some foreign reporters at the train station who were interviewing Roger and Pete together. Pete looked at his watch and told us to time him. He liked setting records.
The road to the Seeger homestead

 I asked Toshi if she ever drove that road. She replied,” I drive it every day.” She was in her 80s.
“Wow. I’ve always wondered how long I will be able to drive Roger around the country for concerts.” 
She touched my arm, looked into my eyes and softly said, “You will do it as long as you need too.”
Roger and I have been blessed to be in the presence of a great couple.  We will miss both of them but we will always have their inspiration to light our paths.