July 1, 1922 – July 9, 2013
Toshi Seeger, Filmmaker, Homemaker, Troublemaker and according to her husband Pete, “The brains of the family” died Tuesday night, July 9 at their log cabin in Beacon, New York, on the Hudson River she spent forty years trying to clean up. She was 91 years old.
Toshi Seeger was a driving force behind all of Pete Seeger’s projects, including the Hudson River’s Sloop Clearwater, that she transformed from an informal concert venue into an educational opportunity for children to learn about the environment and how to restore the river. She was also Pete’s manager and producer, going back to the days when he was blacklisted for refusing to name names before HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee. When he was finally convicted in 1961 for his August 18, 1955 appearance, she accepted all of the bookings that came in, planning on him going to jail and then having to cancel most of them. Much to their surprise, the US Court of Appeals overturned the verdict the same year and Pete had to keep all of the engagements Toshi had made. This turned into his busiest year as a folk singer since he had been blacklisted in 1950. Toshi vowed never again to put up with that—“Let him go to jail,” she declared.
Without Toshi, his staunchest supporter and ally and muse, his folk music career would never have had the impact it did on five generations of musicians, from The Kingston Trio to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Bruce Springsteen and every banjo-slinging, 12-string guitar-playing folk singer able to make a living.
When Pete was banished from the airwaves Toshi figured out how to produce and direct their own TV show—Rainbow Quest—and distribute it to public TV stations. She brought their cameras into a Texas State Prison in the mid-1960s and filmed African-American tree-cutting songs to create a documentary that is now in The Library of Congress. Toshi took their camera (and taught their son Daniel how to use it) on their round-the-world trip in 1963 to film the folk music of other countries and cultures. Some of their classic black-and-white still photographs from that world tour were used to illustrate Seeger’s songbook The Bells of Rhymney.
Toshi Seeger was the daughter of an exiled Japanese Marxist father whose own father had been in the Paris Commune of 1871 and an American mother from a Virginia slave-owning family who left her family to escape the plantation south and met her future husband in Munich, where Toshi Aline Ohta was born on July 1, 1922. The family soon relocated to New York City, where she grew up in Woodstock and Greenwich Village and attended the progressive Little Red Schoolhouse. She graduated in 1940 from NYCs High School of Music and the Arts. She met Pete at a square dance in 1938 and they were married on July 20, 1943. She passed away a week shy of their 70th wedding anniversary.
When Toshi and Pete were married he was so poor he couldn’t afford a ring, so she borrowed enough money from her grandmother to buy one. Pete also was $3 short of the money needed for a marriage license, so Toshi loaned him that.Within days of their wedding Pete had to leave to serve in the Army in World War Two. He served on the island of Saipan in the South Pacific. After the war with the little money they had they purchased an undeveloped piece of land upstate in Beacon, New York on the Hudson River, determined to build their own log cabin. They had no idea at the time that they had riverfront property—until Pete started chopping down trees to have enough lumber to build the cabin. With a little help from their many musician friends, they finished their home in time to move in by 1949 just as the Weavers were starting to perform. The most dramatic event of 1949 happened practically in their backyard when Toshi drove with Pete and their children down to Peekskill, NY for a concert with Paul Robeson that was broken up by the Ku Klux Klan. who smashed the front windshield of their car as they left the outdoor concert site. When they got back home, they took the rocks they found on the floor of the car and at Toshi's urging built them into their stone fireplace so that the kids "can never forget what racism can do to this country."
Toshi took care of their home and raised their three children while Pete was increasingly absent to meet his growing demands as a folk singer—first with the Weavers and after they were blacklisted at the height of their fame in 1950—with their hit song Goodnight Irene (which they learned from Leadbelly) the number 1 song in the country. That didn’t stop Red Channels from blacklisting them and suddenly the only bookings Pete could get were at schools and summer camps—which Toshi managed to develop into a family business. It was that decade long enforced exile from night clubs and concert halls that lead to Pete creating a national audience for folk music among the children, college students and musicians who became the activists of the 1960s and made a noted exception for him from their motto "Don't Trust Anyone Over 30." They trusted Pete.
In 2007, Toshi excutive produced Jim Capaldi’s great film documentary of Pete’s work as a folk singer—The Power of Song. She appears on camera in the pivotal scene of the movie, when an angry Vietnam veteran challenges Pete for his antiwar song Bring Them Home during a concert. Toshi is seen shortly after the concert telling Pete that “you can’t just ignore this soldier, or blow him off; you need to talk to him.” That leads to the most moving scene in the movie where this former World War Two veteran reaches out to the Vietnam veteran and talks to him as one soldier to another. They finally achieve an uneasy but profoundly moving rapprochement and Pete shows that the words stenciled on his banjo head—This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender—are truly words he lives by.
Toshi Seeger was instrumental in starting the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, when producer George Wein turned to them for guidance. He came up to Beacon and right in front of their fireplace they planned how to get it off the ground. Toshi helped to book the festival from then on, bringing Bob Gibson—one of Pete’s protégées—out to the very first one. Bob Gibson brought a young woman friend and budding folk singer from Cambridge, MA with him and pushed her onto the Newport Stage to sing two songs before his set. Her name was Joan Baez.
Toshi continued in her backstage role in starting another festival as an outgrowth of their work on the Sloop Clearwater—the Great Hudson River Revival—and booked another young folk singer who at the time was a virtual unknown—Tracy Chapman.
Toshi Seeger was at Pete’s side throughout their working lives, which combined activism and music in a lifelong endeavor to put music in the forefront of social change.
I had the opportunity to meet her at their home in Beacon when I showed up as one of hundreds of pilgrims who wanted to meet their hero. It was Toshi who met me at the door and invited me—a complete stranger with only a guitar for a calling card—to stay the night and took me down to the clubhouse where they held the Clearwater business meetings. She introduced me to Pete and made me feel right at home.
Some fifteen years later, I got to see her again at UC Riverside, where Pete and Mike and Peggy came out to the Barn Folk Concert Series—run by Dot Harris—for one of their extremely rare concerts as The Seeger Family. That was at Dot’s insistence. I saw up close how much Pete depended on Toshi—virtually never letting her out of his sight. She wasn’t always easy to find during the crowded evening with a packed theatre, especially because Pete towered over her and she got easily lost in the crowd. Every so often I would hear him sing to her in an almost singsong chant—just to keep her from getting lost—or himself from getting lost without her. Suddenly she would emerge from out of the crowd and be at his side again. It was like watching two cooing doves—truly joined at the hip. Pete and Toshi Seeger were the living embodiment of Shakespeare’s marriage of true minds. Toshi was his "ever fixed mark-the star to every wandering bark."