One of the problems with the lifestyle I have chosen is that I don’t always have access to a radio station when I need one. When I heard that Pete Seeger had passed on I really felt a need to be on the air, to talk about Pete, to play his music, to connect with my “tribe” of folkies and activists. Facebook and this blog will have to do.
The first time I interviewed Pete Seeger was in May, 1972 after a concert at Mankato State University. I remember it because it was the day Nixon announced we were mining Haiphong Harbor in the Viet Nam war. I was producing a folk show for Northern Community Radio that we sold to WCAL in order to make money to build KAXE. I had a cassette recorder with a built in mic. I apologized to Pete for the unprofessional kit. I was working to build a community radio station. Pete told me not to be depressed because of the day’s news, that by building community radio I was building for the future. Planting a tree. He seemed so old and wise, although at the time he was 15 years younger than I am today.
A couple of months later he performed at the University of Minnesota and I approached him for an interview again. I was behind a reporter from Minnesota Public Radio, one from WCCO (the biggest commercial station) and the local newspaper. Pete was tired and said he was not sure how much he had in him to do interviews. Then he saw me at the end of the line with my old cassette machine, but this time with an Electrovoice 635 mic. (This was the type of mic that they demonstrated by driving a truck over and then using it to drive a nail into a board, hooking it up and it worked. I think I had one of their demonstration models.) He spotted me at the end of the line and said “Hey Community Radio. You have a microphone. I told you things would get better.” He remembered and said he would give me an interview and the others could listen in.
I have interviewed him several times since and have seen him perform more often than that. His optimism kept me going. It will get better, I have a microphone. When I signed on KAXE the first song I played was “If I had a hammer,” dedicated it to Pete. I not only had a hammer, I had a microphone, hell, I had a radio station.
And later Pete heard that radio station when he was part of a Farmer Labor reunion at Mesaba Cooperative Park outside of Hibbing. I did an oral history at that event and KAXE provided the soundtrack, playing old labor songs and Finnish folk tunes. Pete may have been the youngest person there that I interviewed, all of the old wobblies, reds and CIO men and women, a former Farmer Labor Governor and a former Farmer Labor Congressman all shared Pete’s optimism for a brighter future singing
“In our hands we hold a power greater than their hordes of gold.
Greater than their mighty army magnified a thousand fold
We will bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
The Union makes us strong.”
May all of us in community radio never lose that optimism, never lose the love, never surrender the hammer, the bell, the song or the mic.