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Michael Johnathon reflects on legend Pete Seeger, who fueled radio host’s fire for folk

 Pete Seeger, an American folk legend, will be honored during a special Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour on March 31. Seeger died in January at the age of 94.

Pete Seeger, an American folk legend, will be honored during a special Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour on March 31. Seeger died in January at the age of 94. (Photo from Woodsongs)

Folk singer Michael Johnathon and friends at the Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour are planning a tribute to folk icon and activist Pete Seeger on March 31 at the Lyric Theatre in Lexington.
Seeger, who revitalized folk music as part of American heritage and advocated social change through the art of song, died in January. To Johnathon, Seeger was a neighbor, a friend and an inspirational figure through his journey as a folksinger. In this special contribution to KYForward, Johnathon reflects on the life of Pete Seeger.

What special performances will be part of the March 31 Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour to honor Pete Seeger?
I want to show how Pete’s influence has moved so many into musical action. Pete was banned from American television because of his stand on free speech and affiliations. So in the 1960s, he and his wife Toshi took their meager savings (even famous folkies don’t make much) and convinced a New Jersey PBS station to let him try out a TV series called Rainbow Quest. Pete would sit around a picnic table, play a song with one of his friends like Doc Watson or Jean Ritchie, and then chat a while. Then play another song.
I added a live audience to his idea and it became WoodSongs. So this WoodSongs’ broadcast will bring together many of Pete’s friends and musical partners, those who have used songs to shake, rattle and roll their communities into positive change. Or, at least get them singing again.
We’ll have Rik Palieri, folkie from Vermont who this past summer recreated the Almanac Trail, the tour of unions Pete did with Woody Guthrie in the 1940s. Mark Devorak is a fine singer from Chicago who recreates the songs of The Weavers, tunes like Midnight Special. Richard Nester is one of the original sloop singers who, along with Pete, Don McLean and others, sailed up and down the polluted Hudson River to sing free concerts along the shores to attract audiences. Pete and Toshi Seeger founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater in 1966, known for the sloop vessel Clearwater and for the annual music and environmental festival, the Great Hudson River Revival.

 Woodsongs Olde-Time Radio Hour host Michael Johnathon (left) considered Pete Seeger a mentor and friend. (Photo from Woodsongs)

Woodsongs Olde-Time Radio Hour host Michael Johnathon, on the left, considered Pete Seeger a mentor and friend. (Photo from Woodsongs)

What was your personal connection with Seeger?
I was Pete’s neighbor in New York along the Hudson River. I first encountered Pete at the old Grand Union grocery store in Beacon, N.Y. I knew of this neighbor – we all thought he was nuts. Anytime there was a thunderstorm, this old guy who claimed to be a musician but played the banjo would show up at our school with an ax and chop up the fallen limbs.
After high school, a friend invited me to travel to Laredo, Texas and try being a disc jockey on KLAR-AM. They gave me the 12-6 a.m. time slot, that’s where they stick you when you really suck. One night it was time to play an oldies song so I, by chance, pulled Turn, Turn, Turn by The Byrds off the shelf. As it played, I looked at the song information and noticed it was written by my crazy neighbor.
“Oh,” says I. “That’s who Pete Seeger is.” I had no idea I was living next to folk music royalty.
How was Pete Seeger influential in your own career and musical exploration?
Pete was my musical template and career exemplar, as he was to many. He was our our wood-chopping, maple syrup-making, protest-singing, banjo-playing, ship-building, song-writing, book-authoring, album-making, concert-performing, boat-sailing and community involvement friend.
After Turn Turn Turn played on the radio that night, for some reason, I decided to become a folksinger. I ended up moving into Appalachia, a small hamlet in Knott County called Mousie. I went up and down the hollers with my guitar and banjo learning songs and experiencing hundreds of front-porch hootenannies.
What are your favorite Pete Seeger memories?
I think the most special one was when I was living in Mousie and decided to really pursue this folk thing. I wrote Pete a long letter and told him what I was up to.
A couple weeks later, I was in Connecticut to play at this old rundown cafe. After the gig, I was at a friend’s house for the night and the phone rings. “It’s some guy named Pete,” says my friend. It turns out, Pete got my letter and tracked me down from Mousie to Connecticut just to say something encouraging.
Another was when I played at my first Clearwater concert. Pete walked up onstage without my knowing it and simply started singing into a mic along with me.
The Woodsongs Olde-Time Radio Hour tapes each Monday at the historic Lyric Theatre at 300 E. Third St. The audience must be seated by 6:45 p.m. For more information, visit WoodSongs, and for tickets or reservations call 859-252-8888.

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