Joyce Brown first came to know Pete Seeger as the child of a Philadelphia labor organizer who, along with his friends and neighbors, found himself in the crosshairs of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s Commie-hunting tribunals in the 1950s. Many of her friends’ parents went to prison.
Seeger, whose refusal to answer questions about his acquaintances got him a prison sentence as well, would visit the children of these families regularly, says Brown, now living in Lake Worth, where she runs the nonprofit Flamingo Clay Studio.
“He would come every year, even after he was blacklisted, and he would entertain us. We’d all sit in the grass at his feet and we’d sing his songs,” Brown says. “He made us feel really safe.”
Seeger, the tireless champion of social justice and the environment who helped create such enduring American folk songs as "If I Had a Hammer" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," and who popularized the gospel anthem “We Shall Overcome,” died on Monday in New York City at age 94.
As director of a Philadelphia folk music production company, Swords Into Plowshares, Brown booked Seeger for many shows, where his generous spirit always found a home among lesser-known acts on the bill, she says.
"It was never about him. He was always interested in finding ways for other voices to be heard," Brown says.
After decades of friendship, Seeger's passing is an emotional loss for Brown –– “I can’t imagine living in a world without Pete Seeger,” she says through tears on Tuesday –– but she’s responding in the way best way she knows how, by singing.
Brown’s months-in-the-making celebration of Seeger’s labor songs on Feb. 8 at the Lake Worth Playhouse will now be an opportunity to memorialize him. “Carry It On,” based on the book of labor history and music he co-authored, will have performances at 2 and 7 p.m. A third show in the 300-seat venue on Feb. 9 is a possibility.
“He had many friends and admirers here,” Brown says.
The cast includes nationally known labor singer Anne Feeney, Florida folk singers Grant Livingston and Marie Nofsinger, actress Cerina Anderson and longtime “Seeger seedlings” Maryellen Healy and Vinnie Cerniglia, of Lake Worth, who perform as the duo Mel and Vinnie.
“Pete, right up to the end gave us hope that we can make the world a better place by working together,” says Healy, who met Seeger in the late 1970s doing environmental work in the Hudson River Valley, where she and husband Vinnie spend half the year.
The duo, who over the years made regular appearances with Seeger's boat, "Clearwater," at Great Hudson River Revival festivals, last saw the singer in October at the memorial service for his wife, Toshi. They believe the concerts at the Lake Worth Playhouse would best serve Seeger’s legacy by avoiding a maudlin salute to his songbook and instead sticking to songs honoring the history of the labor movment.
“Pete is not about him being a legend. It’s about the work and the project,” Healy says. “The biggest tribute we can pay to Pete is to do this show as a tribute to the labor movement.”
But if there were a demand for something specifically written by Seeger, Cerniglia has a song ready: “My favorite song of his is not in the show, ‘Quite Early Morning.’ The last lines of it are: ‘And when these fingers can strum no longer / Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger.’”
IF YOU GO
“Carry It On: A History of the Labor Movement Through Song” will be performed at 2 and 7 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Lake Worth Playhouse (713 Lake Ave.). Tickets: $20, $25 advance; $26, $30 at the door. The performances benefit three local nonprofits: Lake Worth Playhouse, Flamingo Clay Studio and the downtown Lake Worth arts organization LULA. Call 561-586-6410, or go to LakeWorthPlayhouse.org.