If there was a Mount Rushmore for folk singers, Pete Seeger’s face would undoubtedly be one of those etched in stone.
In a remarkable career that reaches back to the 1940s, Seeger barnstormed the country with Woody Guthrie, was a member of the Weavers folk group, co-founded the influential folk magazine “Sing Out!” and wrote and popularized hundreds of folk standards.
Seeger was a frequent visitor to college campuses during the 1960s for his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War and on behalf of civil rights. In later years, Seeger, who still lives in his hometown of Beacon, in the Hudson Valley, embraced the environmental movement through efforts to clean up the Hudson River.
Saturday, Seeger, 94, brought an indomitable spirit and bulging songbook to a like-minded audience of more than 400 people attending the Western New York Peace Center’s annual fundraising dinner, held in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.
Seeger entertained the crowd with stories and songs, including “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” often inviting the audience to sing along.
Earlier, during the sound check, Seeger looked out across the roomful of tables and said, “I wish every city had a peace center with a gathering like this.”
“The Western New York Peace Center is just one of the millions of wonderful little organizations that are going to save the world if the world is saved. The powers that be can break up any big thing they want, but they don’t know how to break up so many little things,” he said.
Programs at the Peace Center, which was founded in 1967, include resisting militarism, promoting conflict resolution and supporting farmworker and prisoner rights, fair trade, economic justice and environmental protection.
Seeger came to Buffalo at the invitation of Chuck Culhane, a Peace Center board member and retired paralegal. Seeger befriended Culhane in 1972, after reading a poem that Culhane wrote from prison in Dutchess County, where Seeger lived.
“Pete gave his life to the world with his songs, and working for peace. He’s a very humble and modest man, and really committed to what he does. I guess that’s why he’s an icon,” Culhane said.
Seeger declined to be paid for his appearance.
Earlier in the day, he joined in unannounced for the weekly Women in Black vigil against militarism and violence at Elmwood Avenue and Bidwell Parkway. He also made a surprise visit to a regional conference of representatives of the Newspaper Guild, stepping onto a chair to sing – in a demonstration of solidarity – a song about newspaper workers to a rapt audience.
Folk singer Philip Knoerzer, who had performed Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid” earlier in the gathering, was told by Seeger that he was present when his friend Guthrie wrote the song in 1940.
“It was such an incredible honor to be able to shake his hand. I’ve been doing his music off and on for years, and he’s always meant a lot,” Knoerzer said. Seeger was blacklisted during the 1950s for his leftist views and held in contempt of Congress in 1961 after refusing to answer questions from the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1996, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton.
Seeger’s banjo, platooned with six- and 12-string acoustic guitars as he performed, is inscribed with, “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender.” It is an inscription honoring the memory of Guthrie, whose guitar bore the famous scrawl: “This Machine Kills Fascism.”
“When Woody went into the hospital and didn’t come out again, I decided to put [the inscription] on,” Seeger said.
Seeger will perform with Woody’s son, Arlo Guthrie, in Carnegie Hall on Nov. 30.