A Fast One for Pete
(Note: I’ve published an expanded version of this post as an essay on medium.com.)
I’m deep into a reporting project right now that doesn’t allow me to do as much as I’d like for Veterans Day with my father’s letters as a soldier serving in the Korean War. I did, however, unearth this gem of an anecdote about him and Pete Seeger and the Weavers, written to my mother on my father’s twenty-third birthday, while he was laid up in a military hospital in Fort Belvoir, Va.
Friday Dec 22, 1950
It was good to hear your voice. I couldn’t say much as I was sort of choked up. This is a terrible way to spend your birthday. I miss you terribly.
It just started snowing here. It looks beautiful but I feel sorry for the kids who are in training.
I pulled a fast one on Wednesday. I went out of the hospital but I did not go out with the company for training. The officers were all away and I went to Washington and I saw Pete Seeger. He was wonderful to me. He took me to a steak lunch and I saw the show he and the Weavers are in. The other acts were pretty corny and vulgar but the Weavers are wonderful. Pete tells me that Irene is the second biggest selling record Decca Records has ever had. It has sold somewhere near 2 million copies. They have some new records coming out. So Long it’s been good to know you …, Lee’s song Lonesome Traveling, Fireship and John B Sails are the songs coming out. Pete says Fireship is awful but the others are pretty good. They expect Lonesome Traveling and So Long to be big hits. The whole Seeger family has moved to Pete’s house in Beacon. The MacDougal Street apt is boarded up and will be torn down. We are invited to spend a vacation there anytime we wish. Maybe when I get a furlough we will go for a few days. Pete has written me words to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” They are wonderful. In their dressing room the Weavers sung them for me. On the stage the group is wonderful. The audience loved them. They sang Tzena, Irene, John B, Lonesome Traveling, Hey Laili Laili … and a few others. They literally had the audience in cheers….
The snow has completely covered the ground. Outside everything looks clean and comfortable. Like clean sheets when you are tired. I find it difficult to concentrate on a letter. I think it is because I am doped up with medicine. Sometimes I feel like I am drunk. I guess there is some codeine in some of the pills I take. I hope they decide I do not have rheumatic fever. If I do it would probably mean several months in the hospital. That is something I do not look forward to. I have too much nervous energy to be able to be bed ridden that long. Besides it would preclude leaves home and that is a wretched thought. I think constantly of all the nice things we will be able to do when I can be home for a little while.
With all my love
I knew my father’s friendship with Pete Seeger dated back to the early 1960s with the civil rights and peace movements. The photo of Pete Seeger, above, for example, comes from an anti-nuclear march on the UN led by my father and Bayard Rustin on Easter 1961. At the time, my father was executive director of the Greater New York Council for a Sane Nuclear Policy. And I remember going with my father in the early 1980s to see Pete perform somewhere in the Albany, NY area, I think the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Afterwards Dad took me up front to meet Pete. But I did not know that the friendship with Pete dated back to 1950, such that Pete would be taking my father out to eat and then to hang out with the Weavers in their dressing room before a performance. It’s not entirely surprising, since Dad moved in bohemian artist, labor, socialist and communist circles in Greenwich Village and elsewhere in New York City since the mid 40s. But until I read this letter I had no information about the friendship with Pete Seeger in those years.
My father had planned, at first, to be a conscientious objector. On July 9, 1950, before my parents were married, he wrote to my mother:
You know that I couldn’t even think of going into the American army now. I would rather die than fight or even train to fight in this filthy business. I don’t know what the form of the draft is going to be or what the organized resistance is going to be like but as of know I think my own personal fight will be to refuse to register and as best possible let it be known publicly that I won’t fight a war for the protection of the right to exploit workers wether they be Korean or American.
But he did go on to train and fight just a couple months later. What changed his mind, I don’t yet know. Still other letters sent home from Korea and Japan show that he remained deeply troubled by the Korean War as he served his country. I think this is the Pete Seeger song Dad would say to play for Veterans Day.