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Pete Seeger is still plucking at 87

Springsteen tribute bringing new fans to legendary folk singer
/ Source: The Associated Press

After 87 years, Pete Seeger’s voice is down to a husky purr. The head once crammed with hundreds of songs can now call up, by his count, merely dozens.

He still sings and plays banjo, though.

He performs at churches, parties and — what the heck — on a ferry dock on the Hudson River during a recent interview. Commuters heading home from Manhattan look up at the lanky old man tapping his foot, plucking, and jauntily singing, “Ohhh, newspapermen meet such interesting people!”

Some stop and smile. One guy snaps shut his cell phone and shakes Seeger’s hand with a hearty: “Mr. Seeger, I just want to thank you!”

Seeger has been singing out like this since the Great Depression. The earnest troubadour who either co-wrote or popularized canonical songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “John Henry” has become something like America’s folkie emeritus. He’s back on the charts now, sort of, with the release of “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” featuring Bruce Springsteen’s full-throated versions of standards performed by Seeger. The classic songs not only tell good stories, Springsteen has said, but remain relevant.

“Shameful,” Seeger deadpanned. “I’m so respectable.”

The new album is bringing bushels of fan mail to Seeger’s hilltop home north of New York City. And it validates the philosophy he has held since his train-hopping days — the idea that good songs don’t go out of style, they just get tweaked from generation to generation. Seeger notes that the album’s leadoff track “Old Dan Tucker” was the “No. 1 hit of the year 1844!”

Seeger said he is pleased with the album. But he still has a quibble with the song selection, which is heavy on rousing numbers like “Pay Me My Money Down.”

“If I was picking the tunes, of course, I would have picked some others,” he said. “I think I’d pick a few serious songs, like ’Walking Down Death Row.”’

Then he sings the mournful song.

Still speaking out at 87Seeger marked his 87th birthday May 3 by turning the phone off so he wouldn’t have to answer it “every five minutes.” Toshi, his wife since 1943, had family and friends for dinner. He said he feels good for his age and stays busy.

“I’ve got chores to do. Mow the lawn. Clean leaves out of ditches. Shovel gravel. Split firewood. Stack it,” he said. “And help my wife.”

Fittingly, for a man who held his own with Woody Guthrie, Seeger is a good talker. Listening to him can bring to mind a rumbling freight train constantly switching tracks. He segues easily from autobiographical yarns to a conjectural anecdote about Shakespeare helping write the King James Bible to the deer that eat Toshi’s tulips.

“I get sidetracked. I start with one story and I get going on another story.”

There’s still a hint of vinegar in him. too — the strong opinions that stem from years of singing at union halls, colleges, civil rights rallies and peace protests. During a riverside interview at the Beacon Sloop Club, Seeger predicted supporters of President Bush would be sorry one day and offered 50/50 odds that the human race would be around in 100 years.

It’s easy to imagine him getting blacklisted in the ‘50s after telling the House Committee on Un-American Activities members it was none of their business if he performed for Communists. He grants an interview with The Associated Press on the condition the story mentions his concern about unchecked growth that stemmed from a chat with a local politician a few years.

“He said, ‘Pete, if you don’t grow, you die.”’ Seeger recalled. “Well, one o’clock that night I was up in bed thinking ‘Isn’t it true the quicker you grow, the sooner we die?”’

Seeger nestled his well-worn banjo while talking, occasionally bringing it down from its upright position to make a musical point, his long fingers flying around the frets.

Seeger said he still plays in public every week or two, usually before small audiences like the fellow graybeards gathered at a potluck supper at the little riverside building used by the Beacon Sloop Club. (Seeger bought a salad.)

For years, Seeger has relied on others to make up for his diminished voice, feeding his listeners the lines and letting them sing out. His head might not be able to always call up the lyrics, so he relies on what he calls his “muscle memory.”

“Once my tongue gets started singing it,” he said, “my tongue tells me what the next word is.”