Bruce Jackson on Pete Seeger
In early winter 1966, Pete said to me, "There aren’t any films of those black convict worksongs you’ve been working on in Texas. Somebody should make one before it’s too late, before they’re gone."
I told him that I didn’t know anything about making movies and nobody was going to give us any money to do it anyway. NEH and NEA had just been established and weren’t giving money to people making movies about folk music yet, let alone people like us—me, who nobody knew, and Pete, who was still persona non grata in Washington because of his politics. We couldn’t wait, Pete said. Those songs would not be around much longer and it was important to document them now. He said he would pay for the film himself.
So, in mid-March 1966, Pete, his wife Toshi, and his son Dan came with their film equipment to Huntsville, Texas, where I was doing research at at Ellis prison farm, then the place Texas put multiple recidivists serving long sentences. When I met them at the motel I saw Pete unloading from their rented station wagon his guitar and banjo cases.
Pete & Toshi Seeger, Ellis prison farm, Texas, 1966. Photo by Bruce Jackson
"Why did you bring them?" I asked.
"They’re going to sing for me," he said, "so I’ll sing for them."
"You don’t have to do that," I said.
"Yes I do," he said.
We spent several days in the Ellis live oaks with a group of convicts who sang treecutting and logging songs while they cut down trees and chopped them into pieces with axes, and then we went to a field where they sang flatweeding songs while they worked with hoes. Pete reminded me about him singing for the convicts.
I went to the warden and said, "He wants to do a concert for the convicts."
"Why?" the warden said.
"That’s what he does," I said.
"Okay," the warden said.
The next night several hundred convicts marched into the Ellis prison gymnasium and sat in folding iron chairs. I was certain it would be a disaster. These guys didn’t know from folk music. These guys didn’t know from Pete’s kind of politics. These were very tough guys. These guys would eat Pete Seeger alive.
I didn’t know a damned thing about anything.
I don’t remember what song Pete opened with, but within five minutes he had just about every convict, white and black, in that huge room singing along. And the guards. And the warden. I stood at the side of the stage astonished. It was like a Saturday afternoon workshop at the Newport Folk Festival. The next night Pete gave another concert at the Wynne Farm, another prison at the edge of Huntsville, and exactly the same thing happened.
A day or two after we finished the filming and Pete, Toshi and Dan had gone back to New York, a convict I’d been seeing for several years but who had never talked to me stopped me in the Ellis corridor and said, "How come you never recorded me singing any of them river songs?" River songs is what they called them because nearly all the Texas prisons in those days were in the rich bottomland along the Brazos and Trinity rivers. They were 19th century plantations hiding in the 20th century.
"I never knew you knew any," I said.
"Well I never knew you knew Pete Seeger," he said.
When he said that line to me I was really tickled by it because I was certain that until Pete got up there in the gymnasium a few nights earlier he had never heard of Pete Seeger and his long-neck five-string banjo and 12-string guitar, and neither had most of the men incarcerated or working in that penitentiary. I told the story a lot of times over the years and always thought that when I told it: how amusing that that guy said that thing about Pete about whom he knew nothing before the concert in the gymnasium.
But now I have come to realize there is something far more important and substantial in what that man said to me in the Ellis corridor. He was perfectly serious and he was telling me what Pete Seeger had accomplished in Ellis prison. It was because he felt he was a friend of Pete Seeger, because he felt he knew Pete Seeger, and that was something we shared, so he and I weren’t as total strangers to one another after all.
How many musicians do you know who can do that? How many people do you know who can do that? Go into a perfectly strange place and perform music in a style hardly anybody in the room ever heard before and before the evening is over, they’re all your buddies? Singing songs about things that really matter and thinking about those things?
Maybe that’s Pete’s great gift to us: his ability to join a group of people who might not only be strangers to him but to one another as well and to leave them, however many hours later, with some feeling, some knowledge, that transcends the moment entirely, a feeling and knowledge about the things that bond rather than the things that rend, about what it means to be human rather than what it means to be brutal, about how we must and can get on together by conspiring in the best and most basic sense of that word: breathing together.