Pete Seeger and Me

Life is a series of risks, but some of them are too great to take.  Let me give you an example:

Four years ago, I filmed an interview with Pete Seeger.  It was for INDIAN HILL SUMMER, a film I’m making in my own slow and deliberate way.  What, you may ask, is Indian Hill?

Well, it isn’t, not any more. But for 25 years Indian Hill was a school for the arts, located in the beautiful Berkshires. A lot of kids went through the school and later became well-known (Arlo Guthrie, Julie Taymor, Frank Rich).  They also had a lot of famous teachers.  One was Pete Seeger.

Now, I have to tell you that Pete wasn’t exactly eager to be a part of this film.  In fact, getting him to agree to be interviewed was difficult.  I got his phone number from Irma Bauman who, in 1952, founded Indian Hill with her husband, Mordy. The Baumans wanted to model Indian Hill on the teachings of JS Bach, that students learn best when they live communally with their teachers.  In a way, Indian Hill serves as a model for arts education.  That’s why I’m making this film.

When Pete answered the phone, I was nervous.  I grew up listening to his Town Hall Children’s Concert, so the guy was a musical hero.  Add to that his bravery, his enormous impact on politics, the way he could empower entire audiences, get them on their feet and singing along – well, I was speaking with living history. A man who rode the rails with Woody Guthrie, a man who’d written and recorded songs that we sang as children.

I explained what my film was about.  He said he wasn’t at Indian Hill but a few summers. I said that was okay.  He said he didn’t remember all that much, he was 90 years old now.  Then he proceeded to tell me a story about taking a group of kids on a field trip and losing one of them, maybe to show me what a sorry teacher he was, and by extension, what a bad idea it was for me to interview him.

I say, that’s a great story, Pete, I can see you remember it well.  I don’t know, he says.  When and where would the interview happen? Anytime and anywhere you say, Pete.  There’s a long pause.  I panic — I’m losing him. So I take a risk.  My cards on the table, I say that my chances of getting other interviews will increase if he’s in the film.  This remark lands like a concrete muffin.  Now there’s an even longer silence, I can hear the white noise on the line unspooling, so I blurt out that arts funding has taken a huge cut since Bush became president, and Indian Hill shows the importance of arts education.

I should’ve started with that. Pete wonders aloud if other countries have cut their arts funding. I say what a great question, I don’t know the answer. Hmm, he says.  Well, can you come to my place in Fishkill, NY, to film?  Sure, I say, almost too quickly.  When? How ’bout January 2nd, around 11 am? Then Pete gives me directions.

So, on a cloudy and blustery January 2nd, at 11 am, we arrive to film.  Pete had been right – his place was really hard to find. But find it I did, and brought along my cousin William Klein to ask questions, John McCormick, a sound recordist from New York city.  We were all unpaid slaves to this film.

Pete had built his home – a log cabin in the woods — years ago, and when we stepped inside it was warm and light.  We filmed him by a set of windows.  As he sat down for the interview I noticed an enormous stain on the front of his teal corduroy shirt.  Pete saw my eyeing the stain and said, “If you don’t mind, I’ll wear this shirt, but I’ll hold my banjo like this so the camera can’t see the stain.  Okay?”

So here was Pete Seeger, asking permission to hide his shirt stain with his banjo. “Of course it’s okay,” I said.  Then added as an explanation, “You’re Pete Seeger.”  He gave a great interview, well worth the 300 mile drive from DC. Now it was time for another risk.

I’m an amateur musician, and I had packed my upright bass in my car, along with all the camera gear.  It was icing on the cake, of course, but I really wanted to play a song with my hero.

Even more, I wanted a video of me playing a song with my hero.  But I recalled how skittish Pete was about appearing on camera.  Having the camera on while I asked if we could play a song seemed like too risky.  I decided I’d rather play a song, without video, than to play nothing at all.  So I packed the camera and lights into my car.  Then I returned indoors to ask Pete if he might have time to play a song with me?  Sure, he said.

Averaging 186,000 miles per second, I bolted outside to grab the bass.  Back indoors, I set up while Pete asked what I’d like to play.  Anything, I said.  Okay, here’s a song you might be able to grab ahold of, he says, and starts to play QUITE EARLY MORNING. So now I’m playing bass with Pete Seeger and harmonizing (barely) on the chorus, and it’s great fun.

Pete_Seeger_and_meOn the drive home, my cousin asks me — what was it like, playing with Pete Seeger?  It was fantastic.  Definitely the most fun I’ve ever had on a shoot.  But why didn’t I film the song?  Too big a risk, I told him.  As we drove towards the turnpike, Pete’s song played in my head.  I was so happy, and so glad I hadn’t risked the experience.

How about you?  Have you ever taken a risk – or not taken one – that paid off?