Pete Seeger played many shows at Reed in the 1950s and 1960s. This image is from 1962.
Pete Seeger played many shows at Reed in the 1950s and 1960s. This image is from 1962.

Dinner With Pete

Author remembers a visit Pete Seeger made to Reed in the 1950s.

By Michael Herz ’58 | February 14, 2018

It was the 50s and I was a student at Reed. One of my roommates was Mike Rubin ’58, son of Yiddish folk musicologist Ruth Rubin, a close friend of Pete Seeger. That connection had already led to a Seeger concert the year before, resulting in a wonderful album, “Pete Seeger, His Foot & His Guitar,” featuring, I believe, his earliest recorded performance of “The Bells of Rhymney” played on the 12-string guitar which he was just learning to play.

I was simply blown away. Having grown up in a Minnesota farming community, this concert was the introduction to my lifelong addiction to folk music.

A year later he came to play another Reed concert. He also accepted an invitation to dinner at our off-campus apartment. It was an intense, but low-key evening with a handful of excited, curious Reedies. The meal was not memorable, even though I think it included horsemeat steaks, one of the cheapest meats available on a Reed budget.

What stands out in memory is Pete’s incredibly bright-eyed and engaging curiosity. Another roommate, Frank Beach ’59, was a serious jazz aficionado. He was playing a new Jimmy Giuffre jazz flute album and Pete was fascinated with the music. I remember being very impressed that a world-class singer and collector of folk songs would be as turned on by a jazz musician as he was.

The concert was yet another exciting, educational Reed experience. Pete regaled virtually the entire Reed student body and faculty with musically illustrated examples of how music has become the cultural memory for historic incidents such as wars, famines, strikes, peace, and independence movements. But, for me, the most important take-home lesson from a Seeger concert was how music has been an organizing tool. And Pete, always the teacher, delighted in sharing his vast treasury of union and other movement songs with his audiences—using his joy to proselytize his admirers through sharing and teaching.

But the experience didn’t end with the concert. Pete had scheduled visits to a set of Portland elementary schools to train teachers how to use music as a teaching tool. I volunteered to be his driver and got to accompany him into classrooms of giggling, happy kindergartners and be the fly on the wall as he infected both teachers and students with the joy of music. Frankly though, I’ve never been sure who got more pleasure and satisfaction from these visits—teachers, kids, or Pete!

And now, after many decades of appreciating folk music, I’m struck by how lucky I was to have had my introduction to this art form through this man and his music. What made Pete Seeger such an important and influential international figure was his message. Well, yes, his music is his message and a critical part of that message is the passion with which it is delivered. He sings about truth, justice, injustice, peace, war and love—in other words, about life. But it’s from the perspective of everyman’s life and for practically his whole life, Pete sang truth to power, to stop wars, tyrants and dictators, to support strikers, to be a stand-up kind of guy.

He stood (and offered to sing peace songs) before the House Un-American Activities Committee and defended the rights of all Americans to voice their religious and political opinions by invoking the First, rather than the Fifth Amendment (for the right of freedom of speech and association rather than for protection from self-incrimination). He stood up and sang for freedom riders during the Civil Rights movement (and was jailed for it). And he sang for the plight of pollution of the Hudson River and bankrolled the schooner Clearwater that sailed up and down the river to publicize the issue, to organize citizens and to challenge the government that was failing to protect the people’s water.

Pete was a righteous man, one who continues to make a difference. For more than half a century, he inspired millions of people to stand up for what they believe and to challenge wrong-headed governments and bureaucrats who are unwilling or unable to carry out their mandates. I feel so fortunate that part of my Reed education was to have watched him inspire crowds of people, mobilize protest marches and make kindergarteners giggle.

Mike Herz ’58 is a longtime research scientist and environmental activist. He founded and served as executive director of San Francisco Baykeeper; was an associate professor at UCSF; and has published numerous books and papers on the effects of toxins on the brain and behavior. He also has served as executive vice president of the Oceanic Society and co-founded its San Francisco chapter. He was a member of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission following the Exxon Valdez oil spill and served on numerous technical review committees for the National Research Council, Department of Interior, and State of California. He recently won the Frank Hatch Environmental Health Leadership Award from the Environmental Health Strategy Center.

Tags: Alumni, Reed History, Performing Arts