Take it from Pete

Pete Seeger, pensively listening to Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, 1963. I think Bob was playing "Mr Tamborine Man."

In 1964, I was in eighth grade at the American School in Japan in Tokyo. Being the child of left-leaning Protestant missionaries and a recent visitor to Vietnam, where a U.S. counter-insurgency war was brewing, I was pretty aware of what was going on in the world. But mostly I was into teenage stuff, being cool, girls and rock & roll. One afternoon over the loudspeakers came the announcement that the “famous folk singer Pete Seeger” would appear that day in the auditorium. I had visions of some kind of cowboy like Burl Ives, and sat way in the back expecting another boring school-sponsored event.

But Seeger was nothing but: he leaped about with his banjo and 12-string guitar and sang of little boxes on hillsides, hobos on trains and civil rights. I started to listen carefully. And then he did something that changed my life. “There’s a young man in New York named Bob Dylan who’s writing the most amazing songs,” he said. “And here’s one of his best.”

With that, he launched into a twangy version of Dylan’s masterpiece, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Every line spoke to me, of war and apocalpyse and darkness. I’d never heard anything like it. I had to find out who this guy was writing this stuff. Soon I obtained every record Dylan had recorded up to that point (this was just before “Highway 61 Revisited” was released) and recorded them on my Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder. For the next few months, all I did was sit in my room and listen to those songs. I also picked up the guitar and began to play myself, and I’ve never looked back. To me, music and politics are forever intertwined.

I became a life-long fan of Pete Seeger, too. I’ll never, ever forget Pete at the November 15, 1969, March on Washington, 500,000 people streaming down the mall protesting the Vietnam War, and Pete singing over and over, at the top of his lungs: “All we are saying/is give peace a chance.” Pete’s still around, of course, and has never stopped – even after turning 90. Thanks Pete for being there all those years – and especially introducing me to Bob Dylan (that’s him in the picture listening to Bob at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival – the year before Bob tore it up with his electronic performance of “Maggie’s Farm” and other great rock & roll).

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