Two Buskers: Me and Pete Seeger
We sat down in a grimy corner on the main floor of Grand Central Station. A few other late night Saturday travelers straggled through, but it was as empty as I’d ever seen it. I was in my 20s with a guitar and my companion was in his late 70s with a banjo. We had 40 minutes to wait for our train up the Hudson line. He started playing a song and I followed along as his voice rang out into the cavernous station. Then I sang one and he played frailing-style on his five-string. A couple wandered by and stopped to listen. When we were done, the husband was beaming. “Honey, this is that guy! The guy who sings all them great fucking songs! Pete Seeger!”
A few months before, I had been asked to submit a track for a Pete Seeger tribute album. I recorded a medley of his songs about the Hudson River. A few weeks later, a fax arrived. It was a letter from Pete to the curator of the project — Jim Musselman — that contained constructive criticism of the scope of the material being covered. He said there were too many intense political numbers and it needed some children’s songs and banjo instrumentals. One short paragraph singled out my contribution and enthusiastically supported it being included. Nearly every other recording was by a household name or a musician with a long-established career. Seeger also encouraged the label to sign me and suddenly I had a platform for my music. (After being involved in this tribute, Bruce Springsteen recorded a whole album culled from the Seeger songbook, a decade later.)
While I was in New York, Jim told me that Pete wanted to invite me up to his house and passed along his phone number. I called him and we agreed to meet at the Little Red Schoolhouse in the West Village the next day. When I got there, he emerged with delighted children waving goodbye on the steps and we were trundled into a car that took us to Grand Central for our spontaneous busking.
When we arrived in Beacon that night, he drove us to his house in his new red electric pickup. He was driving slow and said he refused to rush at his age (I laugh about this every time I’m stuck behind a slow elderly driver). Pulling onto his driveway, he giddily illustrated how an electric car could go one mile per hour uphill. I stayed in the guest room in the barn. It was filled with books, magazines, and master reel-to-reel tapes labeled with mind-bending titles like “Weavers, Carnegie Hall ‘55.” I perused the shelves and didn’t sleep much. With no electricity and no alarm, I laid in until 9:30am.
As you would expect, Pete was long awake.
In fact, he had been chopping wood for hours. Seeger was sinewy and fit. Old man strong. His wife Toshi had whipped up pancakes and a few were kept warm for me. Toshi was welcoming and the flapjacks were delicious. Neither of them commented on my late slumbering. There were pictures on a corkboard, including one of Pete and Woody Guthrie. Time and history and music and America were all alive in the room. Pete wanted to hear more of my songs. He liked one called “Riffraff” with the refrain “Hooray for the Riffraff!” and it’s listing of various miscreants through the ages. Then I belted a selection titled “Dancing on the Ruins of Multinational Corporations.” Toshi andPete exchanged knowing looks and clearly disliked it.
“Dancing on the Ruins” was meant as a tongue-in-cheek Dead Kennedys-style punk song with lyrics that imply delight in destruction if taken literally – a tearing down and not a lifting up. I was far too awkward and shy to have a frank discussion about how to improve it. Pete was opinionated about music and I regret not asking for more guidance. He liked populist material with potential for audience inclusion, but he enjoyed a good love song too. We spent the rest of the morning sharing more music and stories in the living room until it was time for me to catch the train home.
Pete drove me back to the Beacon station in the red truck that afternoon and walked me down to the platform. As I stepped on to the train he shouted at me: “Casey! Remember! Peace is the only victory!”
I arrived back to a crowded Grand Central as New Yorkers returned from their weekends. I stopped at our busking site and watched the bustle from our corner.
Casey Neill is a Portland, Ore.-based singer-songwriter and frontman of the band Casey Neill & the Norway Rats. His most recent album All You Pretty Vandals was produced by Chris Funk. He has also played as a sideman with the Minus Five, Martin Hayes, and others. His music has been released by Appleseed Records (best known for its work with Pete Seeger) and Amy Ray’s Daemon Records label. Visit his website for tour dates and more information.