Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: A few moments with Pete Seeger

Published 01/28 2014 10:57AM

Updated 01/28 2014 11:01AM

Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – It’s a sunny day as the words, “Little boxes on the hillside,” drift from the radio as I drive across town in Milwaukee to university classes that include my favorites, journalism.

“Little boxes made of ticky tacky… and they all look just the same.”

The announcer says the song is from Pete Seeger.

I picture Seeger as a guy with a stick. He’s poking the stick into the eye of suburbia.

The song is on “regular” radio, mainstream radio. The social commentary of folk music is part of everyday conversation. Not that it changed anything.

“Pete Seeger died,” my wife says this morning.

I again hear “little boxes …. made of ticky tacky… and they all look just the same.”

In a flash, I’m staring at Pete Seeger’s banjo, feet away.

Written around its front edge is, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

It’s Friday, March 29, 1968, and Pete Seeger has just performed at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, though essentially the campus is yet to be built. We’re at the Deckner campus (today’s Anne Sullivan School).

Pete Seeger is 49. He is a force. In his concert are songs about war, hate and conformity in society. Some people weep when he sings “This Land is Your Land.”

Pete Seeger is Pete Seeger this day. He admonishes the audience for not asking him questions following his performance: “In this day, you can’t play it safe,” he says. “The most dangerous thing to do is to play it safe.”

I listen as I wait my turn as he tells another interviewer, “Folk songs are part of a search for roots. America is full of people searching for roots.”

He praises Woody Guthrie for “a genius of simplicity.”

When it’s my turn for interview questions – “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” looming oh so close – Pete Seeger says such things as, “One of the biggest problems in art is how to simplify things. It is a necessity in art and life to simplify things, but it seems we are born in simplicity and die in complexity.”

This is spontaneous conversation. The guy is on a different plane.

Pete Seeger says, “Songs say many things to many different people and cast back different reflections. The same person can come back to a song at different periods of his life and see different meanings in the words.”

That “different meanings” hangs today.

I wonder if Pete Seeger he is pulling my leg with one of my questions. To the not particularly profound, “How did you start folk singing?” Pete Seeger says, “I wanted to become a journalist (the tone in his voice makes me feel lowly), but I couldn’t get a job. I did it to pick up coins, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

It’s another sunny day today. There still are boxes on the hillside. But Pete Seeger is gone.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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