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Pete Seeger's new albums showcase his vitality, spirit

Pete Seeger sings

Pete Seeger sings "If I Had a Hammer" as the Hudson River Maritime Museum and Clearwater environmental group holds a barn-raising ceremony in Kingston. (Sept. 15, 2012) Credit: Faye Murman

If you think you're busy, you should take a look at Pete Seeger. The legendary folk singer, 93, is more active this year than many artists in their prime.

The longtime Fishkill resident, whose connection to the Hudson Valley has been a driving force throughout his career, keeps an active schedule of local appearances, performing at the Sloop Clearwater barn-raising ceremony earlier this month. He released "Pete Seeger: In His Own Words," a collection of his private writing and letters, in June. And he's still releasing new music, too. He has two albums -- "A More Perfect Union" and "Pete Remembers Woody" -- on sale Tuesday.

Credited with playing a major role in the mid-20th century folk music revival, Seeger had a successful career as a member of The Weavers in the 1950s before going solo in the '60s. He is well-known for his protest music and penned or co-wrote classics including "Turn, Turn, Turn!", "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" He also popularized the spiritual "We Shall Overcome" and "This Land is Your Land," an anthem written by iconic folk artist Woody Guthrie.

One of Seeger's new releases, "Pete Remembers Woody," is a musical/spoken word remembrance of his friend and mentor on the year of his centennial (Guthrie died in 1967). On the album Seeger recounts stories of his and Guthrie's music, life and travels, including hitchhiking across the country together. The two met when Seeger was only 21 years old, and in press materials he described their travels as a "big, big education in learning about America."

"[Woody Guthrie] just seemed to make up one song after another," Seeger said in an interview punctuated with songs and colorful anecdotes. "I never knew such a prolific songwriter in my life."

Seeger's other new release, "A More Perfect Union," is a collaboration with friend and fellow folk singer Lorre Wyatt, featuring appearances by Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello, Steve Earle, Dar Williams and Emmylou Harris. Song topics on "Union" include war ("The Old Man Revisited"), Hurricane Katrina ("Memories Out of the Mud") and the BP oil spill ("God's Counting on Me...God's Counting on You"). The latter track includes vocals from Bruce Springsteen, whom Seeger called "one of the friendliest guys you could ever know."

Seeger worked on the material for both records over the past two years, recording at the Beacon-based home studio of the album co-producer, Jeff Haynes. Seeger's label, Appleseed Records, which the artist has worked with for 15 years, decided to release both albums simultaneously because "the albums are different in many ways ... but both have the common thread of Pete," said Alan Edwards, the publicist for the record label.

Hudson Valley connection

Recording in the Hudson Valley was nothing new for Seeger, who has called the region home since he and his wife, Toshi Aline-Ota, moved from New York City to Fishkill in 1949. "My wife had been raised up in Woodstock, so she knew [what] it was like to live in the country," he said. "We got a nice real estate agent to show us some old farms, but we couldn't afford any of them."

So Seeger was shown a plot of land that he said "nobody wanted to buy because it was so steep." He and his wife purchased the 17-acre plot that only cost $100 an acre, and expanded their property through the years, including a home that affords Seeger a view of his beloved Hudson River.

In 1966, Seeger founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a nonprofit aimed at cleaning up the river, which by the late '60s had become heavily polluted. He said that he had been compelled to take action after a sailing trip down the Hudson in his new boat.

"I found myself sailing through lumps of this and that, like toilet paper, and a phrase by John Kenneth Galbraith came to me: 'Private affluence, public squalor.' I had enough money to buy a sailboat, but I was sailing through toilet waste."

After sharing this story with his friend, artist Vic Schwarz, Schwarz loaned him a book that detailed the history of the majestic sloops, known as the "workhorses of the river," that had sailed the Hudson in the 18th and 19th centuries. Seeger said that he couldn't get the book out of his mind and that he believed a replica of the ship would bring attention to the issue.

"Three years later, the Hudson River Sloop slid down the gangplank and splashed down in the water where it was built. We had to pay off some loans for the boat -- it cost $100,000 -- and we had a wonderful singing crew, including ["American Pie" singer] Don McLean."

The series of concerts held along the river to raise money for the ship inspired the annual Clearwater Festival at Croton-on-Hudson, which has become the country's largest annual environmental celebration. Seeger said he is "proud of its success," and added that "I never thought that something that I had anything to do with would ever be so successful as the Clearwater organization."

As a folk artist, Seeger championed civil rights, environmental awareness and nuclear disarmament throughout his distinguished career, and he continues to use his music to teach and inspire. At the moment, he is concerned about the Hudson Valley's exponential growth in recent years.

"The Hudson Valley has doubled in population every 20 years, and I did research that the world population is doubling every 32 years. I said to a local politician, 'We got to slow down.' He said, 'If you don't grow, you die.' I suppose that's what economists say. I sat up until one o'clock in the morning thinking, 'If that's true, isn't it also true the quicker we grow, the sooner we die?' I mean you can't grow forever, the world is only so big."

So Seeger composed a song that instructs on the dangers of overpopulation, which he enjoys performing at local schools.

"I get the kids to sing it with me," he said. "I sing for mostly small children ... but I'll sing for any grade, teenagers at times. That's who I most like to sing for. It's fun."

Activism and presidential ties

Seeger recently performed on "The Colbert Report," singing "Quite Early Morning" after his interview with Colbert. He called the show's host "a fascinating guy, absolutely brilliant," and added that he hoped to get Colbert to act as an emcee for a benefit concert he is planning for Leonard Peltier, a Native American who has been in prison for the past 35 years whom many believe was wrongly convicted of murdering an FBI agent in 1977.

"We've got a national campaign to try and get Leonard finally freed, and we're going to have a [benefit] concert at the Beacon Theatre in early December," he said, adding that Harry Belafonte, Toshi Reagon and Ani DiFranco will be among the performers, although a date has not yet been set.

Seeger's influence on music and activism reaches all the way to the White House. At the 2004 inauguration concert, when Obama met with and shook hands with Seeger, the president shared his personal connection to his music.

"[The first family] walked up to where we were all standing. He started at one end and shook every single person's hand, and said a word or two of greeting. And when he got to me, he said, 'Mr. Seeger, my mother played me your records when I was 4 years old.'"

When asked if given the opportunity to perform at Obama's second inauguration if he wins the November election, Seeger referenced his advanced age in a way that showcased his keen mind and witty sense of humor.

"I'd be very proud to, but I don't know if my voice is good enough now," Seeger said. "My voice has gone to hell. People ask me, 'how are you Pete? And I say, 'if I can remember, I'll tell you.'"

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