It’s not unexpected but is still sad. Pete Seeger passed away yesterday at the age of 94. He was a great musician and songwriter but, more importantly, was just a wonderful person – devoting his life to people and the planet.
My last personal encounter with Pete was at MerleFest in 2006. We were newly displaced in Nashville following Katrina.
I frequently put MerleFest on my calendar because it looked like such a killer festival but, prior to 2006, we had never made it. The problem is that it occurs at the same time as the first weekend as Jazz Fest. Before Katrina, we had been living a block from the Fairgrounds. The decision always was, “Do we travel 800 miles to see world class music or walk a block to see world class music?” Somehow, the 800 miles always lost out in the decision.
Living in Nashville, we were probably as close as we were ever going to be to Wilkesboro, North Carolina – the home of MerleFest – so we decided to make MerleFest our Spring Festival instead of Jazz Fest. It was one of the few times that we missed Jazz Fest and it was kind of wrenching. It was the first Jazz Fest following Katrina, so there was going to be a special kharma about it. Plus, one of the performers was Bruce Springsteen, specifically bringing his Pete Seeger tribute band. There would f’r sure be very few opportunities ever to hear that band and 2006 at Jazz Fest was one of ’em. And they were playing on the very day that we would be at MerleFest.
Then there’s the whole aspect of MerleFest being a dry festival. That alone is fairly dislocating for this New Orleans festival lover. Going to hear music without beer being involved!?!? I remember standing at MerleFest at eleven in the morning staring at my coffee cup thinking that, at Jazz Fest, I would’ve already been on my second beer and maybe even had a cigar.
A couple of the performers that we particularly targeted at MerleFest were Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. They were everywhere at the festival. One of their performances was in the dance tent with their kids and extended family. At one point, Jay introduced the band. He got to this older guy sitting down front with a banjo and, of course, this member of the extended family turned out to be Pete Seeger.
New Orleans had the tribute band but, due to a cumulation of ironic circumstances, I got to hear the man himself on the very day that Springsteen was doing the tribute to him back in my hometown. Katrina, 800 miles from home, no beer – none of it mattered. It was serendipity that I will always cherish remembering.
(Beer aside, hats off to the MerleFest people for running an amazingly clean festival. There is NO trash left anywhere on the ground. A major part of that is due to the indoctrination that they actively try to instill in their festival patrons. Unfortunately, their cleanliness is a major contrast with Jazz Fest and is something that we could learn from them.)