More than two years after his passing at age 94, Pete Seeger's legacy only continues to grow. For seven decades he was living proof of the power of song. But how did Richard Barone, an indie rocker best known for his post-punk power pop, come to co-produce the final single of a folk legend and national treasure? We find out here, in Richard's own words.
One of my early childhood memories is sitting in front of my folks' big RCA color TV watching the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, before it was famously cancelled by CBS because of the brothers' liberal views. There I was, watching a skinny, joyful, incredibly determined and earnest-looking dude singing "Bring 'Em Home" to an enraptured young audience. It was the height of the Viet Nam war, and I was too young to understand that the singer had been blacklisted for years, or that his name was Pete Seeger. But I felt the emotional pull of the words and music, thinking of my older brother and cousins who talked about the draft and how to avoid it, and I never forgot the experience of watching that man sing that simple plea. A big fast-forward to 2010, and a lot had changed. But there were still plenty of wars going on, and there were still reasons to sing out.
One night, while attending a show at my home venue, New York's City Winery, the booking manager pulled me aside and asked if I would be interested in hosting and producing a benefit concert aimed at raising funds to help local cleanup efforts down south.
The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill was an environmental disaster few could fathom. Set off by an explosion on April 20, 2010, the underwater well spewed 1,000 to 5,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days — a total of 210 million gallons — until it was supposedly contained five months later. Relief was slow in coming for local residents and businesses mired in the muck, and wildlife and tourist trade were devastated.
Even if I hadn't been born and raised in the Gulf region, I would have agreed to help produce the event. The only question was, "Who I should ask to perform and speak?" I knew we needed artists who would resonate with the cause, get the message out, and sell tickets. That very night, still at the venue, I bumped into my friend, journalist and publicist Rhonda Markowitz. When I told her about the concert plans, she dryly said, "Get Pete Seeger."
A big part of Pete Seeger's past of course, was his legendary cleanup of the Hudson River. For decades the river served as a garbage dump for industrial refuse. The Clearwater Foundation and Festival in upstate New York, and the clean river itself, are everlasting reminders of his efforts.
So, yes... Pete Seeger. But how do I reach him?
"I have his home phone number," Rhonda offered. This is why I love publicists.
I had met Pete once before, at a memorial service for our mutual friend, Joyce Wein, wife and partner of Newport Folk Festival producer George Wein. Although Pete performed at the service, he had lost his voice, and almost silently led everyone in a haunting sing-along of his song "Turn, Turn, Turn." I was genuinely moved, but when I told him that after the service he apologized for not being able to sing. Now, a few years later, I had my concerns as to whether he would be up to performing. Regardless, the next day I took a deep breath, picked up the phone, and dialed the number.
"Hi, this is Richard Barone. I'm calling for Pete Seeger."
"This is Pete."
"Hi, Mr. Seeger. We met a couple years ago at Joyce Wein's memorial. We spoke after."
"Well, I'm producing a benefit concert to raise funds and help local residents clean up from that terrible oil spill down south..."
"Ah, yes. I'm glad to hear this," Pete replied, energized. "My collaborator, Lorre Wyatt, and I just finished a song about it."
"Wow, really? About the spill?" "Yes, let me sing it for you."
Pete then proceeded to sing all seven verses of "God's Counting on Me, God's Counting on You" over the phone, a cappella, as I sat at my kitchen table, astounded. At 91 years old, his voice was weathered, of course, but still tuneful and with his trademark purity. The song was vintage Pete; a great folky tune, full of sweet and funny one-liners, and current political references. I flashed back...