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Pete Seeger: An Antioch fan
Pete Seeger gave his last performance at Antioch College on August 9, 1984 for HUMAN Day, an occasion conceived by Jim Dunne, founding director of the Yellow Springs based human rights organization Help Us Make A Nation. The Dayton Daily News piece promoting the show says Seeger performed at Antioch about annually in the 1950s, but Antiochiana has only been able to document his appearance in Curl Gym on April 25, 1957. In fact, the announcement for the 1957 show in the Antioch College Record says Seeger had been here “last spring,” though the 1956 Record didn’t mention any such appearance.
Reference Librarian Kevin Mulhall remembered seeing the show in 1984, relating that, having showed up at Kelly Hall just moments before the show, Pete noticed him and a friend milling about looking for a seat, and directed them both to come up on stage, and they saw him play so up close and personal that it seemed like the only thing missing was a campfire.
Documentation or not, Pete undoubtedly came to campus plenty. Once the Weavers, the band with which he produced his biggest hit (Lead Belly’s “Irene, Goodnight”) in 1950, were blacklisted from commercial performance due to his and bandmate Lee Hayes’ political views, Seeger began crisscrossing the country, performing at the only places that would book him: colleges and universities.
Here’s how he told it in an interview from 2001: “In the 1950s, I went back to teaching briefly 'cause I wasn't quite sure how to make a living. In 1953, the Weavers, as Lee Hays said, took a sabbatical and it turned into a Mondical and a Tuesdical. But some of the kids I'd sung to in summer camps a few years before were now in college. I went to Oberlin first and had a good time singing with them and the next year went back and sang for twice as many. I then went to Antioch and then Reed College in Oregon. Then I was able to go to more conservative colleges…”
We’d love to hear more about the times you saw Pete Seeger at Antioch College. Please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are some of the responses we've received:
I only remember seeing Pete Seeger once at Antioch and I assume it was the 1957 visit. We sat on the floor under the Gilbert Wilson mural in the old gymnasium and sang our hearts out. It was a fabulous sing along— we shared concern for civil rights and Antioch College, as Seeger was a target of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. According to the Times, Seeger was indicted in 1957 on 10 counts of contempt of Congress, and his appearance at Antioch may have been around that time. It would be interesting to know.
We spent a lot of those years square dancing on Red Square and probably followed the Seeger concert dancing on the square (Seeger was not in attendance).
—Jo Procter ’58
I was part of a small group sitting on the floor of the gym for a Seeger concert around 1953 or ’54. It was great fun but we had no sense that it was of any great importance. Pete sat on a chair, it was easier for him to play his instruments that way, and we went through the usual Tzena, Tzena, Tzena and Goodnight Irene as well as many others. We all had come of age with the Weavers, Leadbelly and more and were all familiar with popular and unusual folk music. In fact, hall parties often included singing of folk music. The turncoat communist/FBI informer, Harvey Matusow, testified about our "communist songs" at hall parties he had attended when he appeared before the Ohio House Unamerican Committee hearings in '51 or '52.
—Roberta Churchill ’56
I have a vivid and highly specific memory of hearing Seeger in the Antioch gym in the fall of 1953. I was seated on the floor just under the neck of the banjo and was dazzled in the way only an adolescent can be dazzled. That was the beginning of my folky phase—which ended, I should say, when it all went mainstream in the next decade. I’ve come to have mixed feelings about Seeger since—his smarmy feel-good populism sometimes gets up my nose. But the music was glorious, and very few things in life can top the experience of being under the neck of his banjo when you are 17.
I was at Antioch from 1952 to 1954. Pete Seeger played an informal gig in one of the residence halls while I was there— possibly one of the temporary buildings near the science building. I remember sitting on the floor enjoying the music immensely, having no idea that I was a few feet away from someone I would come to admire as much as any person of our times.
—Jackie Grey Etemad ’57
I was at Antioch from 1948 to 1952. I vividly remember Pete Seeger in concert in the gymnasium. We all sat on the floor, Pete sang and, more importantly, made us join him. He would sing "What shall we do with a drunken sailor" and then encourage us to make up a verse. It was the same with many other songs. Inspired by him, there was lots of folk singing on the campus. I put together a small book of words to popular songs being sung: "What was that Song," which sold in the Book Store for 50 cents a copy. We sold about 75 and my dreams of being a big time publisher were dashed. So, yes, Pete did sing as early as 1949; I was there. He has remained an inspiration for me ever since and I treasure the memory.
—Jim Barter ’52
I attended Antioch from 1958 – ’65 with a two-year break to work locally while changing majors. But I lived in Yellow Springs throughout that time (except during co-op jobs). I remember seeing Pete for the first time soon after starting there, and at least three times overall. I also remember seeing Mike Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers at least 3 times, sometimes with Peggy Seeger, Pete's half-sister. The Seegers were there often and greatly appreciated by Antioch and Yellow Springs fans. Pete Seeger, along with Arthur Morgan, really impressed me while I was on campus. Both lived lives aligned with their values and did not let political opposition stop them. They, along with I.F. Stone, the journalist (I.F. Stone's Weekly), shaped my view of what being a good citizen of the U.S. really meant.
—Richard C. Mains ’65
I recall the one in the Mills Lawn Elementary cafeteria/gym (at the south end of the building) sometime in 1953—’55, his third or fourth in YSO. He sang Abiyoyo and may have sung about the frog: the song later animated by Schindler-Deitch for Children’s Circle Weston Woods, now owned by Scholastic. The frog may have jumped so far he fell in the water, you could hear him holler for a mile and a quarter; and then there was the Sad Bells of Rhymney.
—Stuart “Jem” Filler
I had known Pete Seeger for a number of years, having grown up in Greenwich Village and attending City and Country School where he taught for a couple of years, as well as going to any number of Hootenannies and square dances at which he participated, etc. I also attended 2 summer camps that he came to, sharing with us his talents. I definitely saw Pete at Antioch on one occasion (I recall him seeing me and saying, "What, you're here?" and calling me by name), and I have a feeling he may well have come a 2nd time... I’m not sure; it may have been when I was off campus on a co-op job. I have no specific memory of him singing in Curl Gym, but I recall him singing outside —I think it was in front of the main building— with a small group that then became a large group of us singing along with him.
I was on campus the full year of 1955-56. In 1956-7, I was away for the first 8 weeks, and away again for 12 weeks after the Christmas holidays. My sense is that it was the spring of 1957, after returning from my co-op in NYC, that I have my specific memories of him on campus. That would coincide with the article from the College Record.
—Carol Levine Paasche ’59
There are no documents to back this up, but I was a B-div student from the October of 1950 (when I transferred in after 1-yr at Bethany College in WV) through the Spring of 1954 when I graduated with 2 majors — Sociology & Music. I was also a guitar-strumming folkie, and for part of that time (no idea how much), I was the president of the Folk-Music Club on campus. Anyway, one of my fondest memories is of a Pete Seeger performance in Curl gymnasium. It was just a solo gig — no Weavers — and very informal, lots of sing-alongs (a-wim-a-weh, a-wim-a-weh!). I see that the Dayton Daily News said that he performed "about annually in the 1950s," so I may have seen him more than once. Thanks for reminding me!
—Katy Cobb Jako ’54
I was at the 1957 concert. As I remember, he was scheduled to perform in town at a local school (Junior High?), but at the last minute the town fathers decided that because he was a communist they would not allow Pete to sing. (Even though he had quit the party a number of years earlier.) So the concert was held on campus in the gym with everyone sitting on the floor. Pete also stayed for at least part of the weekend and gave some workshops. I remember running into him at the village drugstore and telling him how much I enjoyed the concert.
—John Harris ’59