Singing together can heal.
That philosophy from late folk artist Pete Seeger will be at the forefront of a concert in Astoria on Saturday, April 28.
Almost 40 musicians will take turns appearing on the stage of the Clatsop Community College Performing Arts Center to celebrate what would have been Seeger’s 99th birthday.
They’ll perform as many as 27 hits, such as “O Had I A Golden Thread,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and “Goodnight Irene.” The audience will be invited to sing along with at least six, including, “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the latter based on the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. The Woody Guthrie favorite, “This Land is Your Land,” and the anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome,” will also be featured.
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“In the largest sense, every work of art is protest. ... A lullaby is a propaganda song and any three-year-old knows it. ... A hymn is a controversial song — sing one in the wrong church, you’ll find out.”
— Pete Seeger
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Co-director is Kit Ketcham, minister at the Pacific Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Astoria since 2013. She staged a similar sold-out event in 2009 when pastoring a church in Whidbey Island, Wash., as progressives celebrated the feeling of hope early in the Obama administration.
Times have changed.
“The mood of our country is sad, angry, fearful and vengeful,” she said. “Pete Seeger and his philosophy of bringing people together to sing is an antidote to that negative mood, and I want people to start singing together.
“I want us to go into this concert with the understanding that music heals, that songs of justice and of caring and of joy and purpose bring people together, lift our spirits and fill us with renewed hope.”
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“We all go to different churches or no churches, we have different favorite foods, different ways of making love, different ways of doing all sorts of things, but there we’re all singing together. Gives you hope.”
— Pete Seeger
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Encouraged by Gina and Hobe Kytr, Dave Ambrose and Joseph Stevenson, who is co-director, Ketcham started to recruit musicians, including the Brownsmead Flats and the Clatsop County Stringband, and asked Jim Dott to be the narrator. Pete Seeger’s birth date is May 3, but the Astoria concert is scheduled a week early to avoid conflicts with the Hispanic community’s Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
Seeger died in 2014 aged 94 after a lifetime of activism, creating songs that formed the soundtrack to the lives of everyone who will perform at the PAC.
His life was marked by controversy: Environmental activism, plus opposition to the Vietnam War and nuclear armaments, were core beliefs that alienated whole factions of American society and government. At points, Seeger embraced then later rejected communism; his early band, The Weavers, was blacklisted during U.S. Sen. McCarthy’s “witch-hunt” era of the 1950s. His vehement attack on Bob Dylan for expanding out from his folk roots and “going electric” during a 1965 concert is still debated by musicians and critics a half-century later.
His death drew plaudits from President Obama — who labeled him “America’s tuning fork,” a description used years earlier by Carl Sandberg and Studs Terkel. The world’s songwriting/recording community mourned. Bruce Springsteen, who performs Seeger’s anti-war “Bring ’em Home,” called him “a great hero.” One musical celebration of life featuring Judy Collins and Peter Yarrow lasted five days. Recalling his decades-long efforts to clean up pollutants in New York state, a federal environmental protection official commended Seeger’s leadership as “extraordinary.”
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“Where have all the young men gone?/Long time ago/Where have all the young men gone?/Gone for soldiers every one/When will they ever learn?/When will they ever learn?”
— “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”
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Husband and wife Tom and Siv Barnum came to appreciate Pete Seeger from different angles; they will perform with guitarist John Snyder.
Guitarist Tom Barnum recalls attending Astoria High School in 1972 as the Vietnam War waned during the last turbulent years of the Nixon presidency. “It was a volatile period of time for a young man growing up here,” he recalled.
A year later, Nixon would fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, appointed to investigate presidential impropriety. Today’s parallels, with Robert Mueller probing President Trump’s actions, are eerie. “It seems like full circle. ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,’” Barnum quipped, using a phase often attributed to Mark Twain.
Vocalist Siv Barnum moved to Astoria from Eugene in 2016 to become Clatsop College’s registrar. A native of Norway, she lived in Sweden and Africa before emigrating to the U.S. at 17. With Nelson Mandela in prison in South Africa, and all-white schools like hers practicing bomb drills amid escalating racial tensions, she recalls an assembly at which she soloed on a verse of Seeger’s “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?”
A distinguished guest commended the singing — but “reprimanded, in a very polished artful way,” her choir director for choosing “the most depressing music she had heard.” Barnum recalls that visitor suggested they lived in “peaceful times” during South Africa’s apartheid violence — days after she and other students had rehearsed yet another riot drill.
The Barnums will sing Seeger’s “Old Devil Time,” which includes a line directed to “old devil hate” — “Help me rise to fight you one more time.”
“The lyrics pierce me with reminders of South Africa,” Siv Barnum said.
Snyder’s solos will be “Guantanamera,” which tells the story of Cuban martyr José Martí, as well as “Tomorrow is a Highway,” a song Seeger penned in 1961 with Lee Hayes from The Weavers after his car was stoned at a rally. There is an understated admiration in the way Snyder sums up Seeger. “His vision, his connectivity with nature and the community was precious — and there’s some incredible music, too.”
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“Tomorrow is a highway, broad and fair/And hate and greed shall never travel there/But only they who’ve learned the peaceful way/Of brotherhood, to greet the coming day.”
— “Tomorrow is a Highway”
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Bob Lennon, who is retired from the U.S. Postal Service, now drives school buses in Seaside. He and friend Dale Clark, a gallery owner, will perform as Geezer Creek, as well as backing Ketcham on a couple of songs.
Lennon recalls high school in the 1960s where Seeger appeared everywhere, inspiring Judy Collins, Joan Baez, The Byrds, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Bob Dylan.
“The thing I love the most about Pete Seeger was he had the courage of his own convictions,” Lennon said. “He lived his life that way. Whether it was his simple home, his music or his activism, he was true to himself.”
His campaign in the sloop Clearwater inspired others, Lennon said, whose song list will include Seeger’s “My Dirty Stream.” “He saw how polluted the Hudson River was and said, ‘Let’s build a sailboat and sail it up and down the river. People will see it and come down to the river. They will notice how polluted the river is and want to clean it up.’”
It took decades, but federal authorities eventually labeled the polluted area around an industrial plant a Superfund cleanup site.
Sandy Nielson, Unitarians’ musical leader, will perform “My Old Brown Earth,” with Snyder accompanying her. She calls Seeger her hero. “What he did for the Hudson River proves one person can make a difference — and people followed him,” she said.
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“Guard well our human chain/Watch well you keep it strong/As long as sun will shine.”
— “My Old Brown Earth”
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The concert is a fundraiser for Partners for the PAC, the group working to save the Performing Arts Center, and coordinated through Ketcham’s Pacific Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, which meets there. “It’s more than a fundraising event — it’s a spirits-raising event,” she said.
“Pete Seeger has been a major influence in my life since I was fresh out of college and sitting around with friends singing his songs,” said Ketcham, who graduated from Linfield College in 1963 and had a career as a public school teacher/counselor in Colorado before becoming a church leader. “I have always loved making music with others, harmonizing, savoring the inspirational words of the songs we sang, and Pete was my muse for many years.”
Seeger’s path led him through his mother to the Unitarian Universalist Church in New York; the faith works hard to be all-embracing, accepting people with differences while stressing the need to care about each other and the planet.
Ketcham delights that his songs embrace Unitarian values, which she describes as, “concern for the environment, love for nature, harmony in human living, working collectively to solve problems, celebrating life in quirky ways.”
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“Most conservatives just want to turn back the clock to a time before the income tax — 100 years or so. I would like to turn the clock back thousands of years to a time when people lived in small communities and took care of each other.”
— Pete Seeger
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The line-up has grown as the date has loomed. Performers also include Charlene Larson, Susie McLerie, Dinah Urell, Margaret Frimoth, Joanne Rideout, Jerry Middaugh, Dave Crabtree, Jennifer Berg, Luke Ydstie, Kati Claborn, Knox Swanson, Larry Moore, John Fenton and Dan Sutherland. Singing in the ensemble will be Anne Maltby, Nancy Logan, Nancy Cook, Jerry Wilski, Arline LaMear, Jane Hill and Kathy Matthews.
For the trio of Ray Raihala, wife Denise of Astoria and daughter, Teresa Raihala-Sethe of Portland, it will be an opportunity for a family gathering.
Raihala laughed when asked about Seeger’s influence on his life. “Pete was the quintessential folk musician. You can’t name a song that he didn’t cover or write,” he said. “I got ‘Pete Seeger: How to Play the (Five-String) Banjo.’ I was probably early 20s. I remember it had a red cover.”
The result was a lifelong love affair with the instrument and years of joy performing, including recent years with the Brownsmead Flats. “The banjo is a happy instrument,” he grinned. “It enables you to be obnoxious — if you wish!”
For Denise Raihala, Seeger’s influence was central. “He’s probably the reason we are musicians . . . ”
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“Can music save the world? Well, it’s one of the things that will. Words are good, and words help us become the leading species on Earth to the point where we are now ready to wipe ourselves off the Earth. But I think that all the arts are needed, and sports too, and cooking, food, and all these different ways of communication. Smiles, looking into eyes directly, all these different means of communication are needed to save this world. But certainly a great melody…”
— Pete Seeger
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Editor’s note: The writer acknowledges assistance with historical context from Kit Ketcham and British poet/folkie Chris Ripple.