I didn’t know much about Pete Seeger or his music before we met in 2003. ~ I never sailed on the Clearwater with him. I never chopped wood with him. I learned about Pete by standing alongside him on stage, rehearsing off stage and watching him interact with others. This gives me a unique perspective of who Pete was and what he stood for.
Every time we were in each other’s company, Pete shared some piece of wisdom. This, in turn, led to hours of conversation on topics as varied as Martin Luther King, Benjamin Franklin, Native Americans, trees, mountains, rivers, maple syrup, Pythagoras, harmonics, the number twelve, evolution, Neanderthals, democracy, Thomas Jefferson, the civil rights movement, and so much more.
The Day I Met Pete:
In 2003, Pete stumbled upon a recording of my song “Vote.” He sent me a letter that included a lyric sheet of the song with a whole lot of red lines through certain words, question marks, and comments. A few weeks later, he mailed me another letter asking permission to sing my song. Imagine that! A man of Pete’s stature asking permission to sing my song. What he was really doing was treating a fellow songwriter as an equal – not as someone he was bigger, better or more important than. So the first thing I learned about Pete was not how great a songwriter or performer he was, but rather that he was a generous, thoughtful man – an egalitarian.
A few weeks after that, Pete sent me a postcard inviting me to perform with him at the annual Pumpkin Festival in Beacon, New York. When I saw him there, I extended my hand and said …
“Hi, I’m Spook Handy.” I expected him to shake my hand and say, “Hi, I’m Pete Seeger.” Instead, he put his hands in his pockets, stooped down two inches to my level and with his own bright blue eyes, aflame with wisdom, compassion, and fierce determination, he looked into mine deeply, as if he were searching for something – sizing me up. After a few seconds he spoke.
“Do you know what ‘Founder’s Disease’ is?”
I said, “You tell me, Pete.”
He said, “Founder’s Disease is when the same people who founded an organization thirty years ago are still running it today.” With that said, Pete turned and walked away.
An Answer to my Question:
How Spook Handy and Pete Seeger came to meet and find common cause is quite an unexpected odyssey. Spook grew up in a fairly conservative household. His mom did her best to be open to contemporary music and being as open minded as she could, she bought two contemporary albums for the family: The Beatles “Hard Days Night” and Peter Paul and Mary’s “In Concert.” The day Spook “had a hammer” in his hand and started hitting the furniture with it, his mom realized that “rock and roll can be dangerous to young children” and that was the end of that experiment. But it was too late. The seed had already been planted. Not everyone hears the influence of the Beatles in Spook’s music, but the influence of Peter Paul and Mary is unavoidable. Still, until they met in person Spook had no idea that a fellow by the name of Pete Seeger wrote so many of the songs he grew up loving or that Pete was such an influence on all of contemporary folk music.
“Spook Handy really understands how to write a good song that says something important.”.… Pete Seeger
In 2003, Pete heard Spook’s song “Vote” and added it to his repertoire. That October, he invited Spook to share the stage with him at a small festival in Beacon, NY. Spook was quite taken by Pete’s generosity of spirit, his interaction with the audience and the sense of purpose behind his songs. Here was someone living so many of the values that Spook held himself. From that first encounter to the end of Pete’s life, Spook and Pete have performed together on over 50 occasions. While Spook knew that standing alongside “the grandfather of American Folk Music” was a great honor, he understood it even more so as a challenge to develop his own art and purpose to the highest level he can attain.
As the years passed, Spook learned more and more from this master of songwriting, performance and universal wisdom. And he continues to practice and study all the time. Surely, Spook has learned but a fraction of the whole picture, but it’s enough for him to know how important it is to carry on, build upon and pass along the tradition of the great masters of American folk music.
“Spook’s songs embody the same intellectual rattle and simple honesty that have characterized so much of (Pete) Seeger’s career.”…. Kim Ruehl – About.com
“What a joy your music is! If you need a reference, don’t hesitate!”…. Josh Dunson, manager for Peggy Seeger, Si Kahn and others.