From “Remembrances of Yesterdays”
By William C. Taggart
When I was living in Salem, N.Y., my family’s home town, in the early 1960s and teaching high school in Granville, about 20 miles north of Salem, on Friday nights I would have supper with my mom and head off to Saratoga Springs about 30 miles west of Salem.
It was in Saratoga that I had found a wonderful place Caffe Lena on Philo Street, not far from Skidmore College. At the coffee house I made many friends and was able to see and hear some of the great folk singers of the day. It was there that we also raised funds for the famous Freedom Riders who were desperately trying to end discrimination in the South.
My favorite performers or artists were Michael Cooney, Mississippi John Hurt, Frank Wakefield, Pat Sky, the Beers Family, Dave Van Ronk, and of course Bob Dylan. Of all the artists my real favorite was Mississippi John Hurt and especially his rendition of My Creole Belle.
One night at the cafe someone told me about a benefit concert in Albany for a project called the Hudson River Sloop Restoration. The most popular and famous of all folk singers Pete Seeger was to perform with others at the State Capital Library to raise funds and talk about the Sloop Restorations. I made arrangements with a friend Lucille Tasker, of Hudson Falls, to attend the concert. Pete was in fine-form and did all the usual songs like “Kisses Sweeter that Wine,” “Good Night Irene,” “Michael Row the Boat a Shore,” and of course the Erie Canal song, a song I had learned in fifth grade. After the show Lucille introduced me to Pete and a friend of his, Hal Cohen of Wappingers Falls, N.Y. They told us that the Sloop Restoration was going to hold a large festival on an estate in Garrison, N.Y, overlooking the Hudson, that spring and that we were welcome to attend and help out in any way that we could. We liked the idea of the Sloop Restoration and looked forward to the festival. I didn’t realize at that time that I was about to go on an adventure that would change the rest of my life.
The day before the festival I drove down to Wappingers Falls with three of my high school students, the Trop brothers and John Winn, all members of the student council. We stayed at Hal and Debbie Cohen’s house and shared some pizza with them. On Saturday morning we were up early and on our way to Garrision on the banks of the Hudson. I introduced the boys to Sandy Saunders, the president of the Sloop Restoration and he immediately put the guys to work clearing a parking area for the car. I met Barbara and Bob Bielenberg of Garrison. Bob was an outstanding artist and was painting a sloop flag and decorating the stage to make it look like a 19th century sloop. At that moment we became lifelong friends. The festival was a great success with performers like Hedy West, Michael Cooney, Lee Hayes formerly of the Weavers, Tom Winslow a young black singer. Elizabeth Cotton, an elderly black woman credited with writing the song Freight Train, was there. Of course Pete Seeger acted as the master of ceremonies and sang also.
That night after the concert we were invited to Pete and Toshi Seeger’s home high on a mountain looking over Newburgh Bay and the Hudson Valley. I also met Takashi Otaha or Top Poppa Toshi’s wonderful father. During our wonderful meal I asked Pete it we could do a fund raising concert for the sloop in Granville, where I was teaching high school. Sure was his reply, and I was happy because now I could do a little planning and produce a Pete Seeger concert in Granville in the heart of Washington County.
Later in the school year I arranged a concert date with Pete and I went to Mac Manchester, the editor the Granville Sentinel, to ask if he and the Lions Club would sponsor a Pete Seeger concert at the Granville High School. Mr. Manchester was receptive to the idea, liked the idea of the Sloop Restoration, and offered to approach the Lions Club. I went to a Lions meeting with Mac, gave a brief talk about the sloop idea and the club voted to host the concert with all of the proceeds going to the restoration project.
Mac and I went to the high school for a meeting with the superintendent of schools Mr. Ward and we arranged a date for the use of the school auditorium which would seat about 700 people. All was well and I started to write press releases for the area papers and to arrange a few interviews on Glens Falls radio stations. A hitch would soon develop in our plans and as a result we did have a few obstacles to overcome.
Pete Seeger had had a successful recording career with a folk singing group the Weavers with Lee Hayes, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman and produced hits like “Goodnight Irene,” “Rock Island Line,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” back in the early 1950s. All of a sudden came along Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his witch hunting Anti-American Committee. They named Pete as a communist and he refused to testify before the committee along with many other proud Americans. As a result of these false charges Pete and the Weavers lost all their concert dates, and the group disbanded. At this time Pete had a young family to support and property on a mountainside just east of the Hudson River and south of Mt. Beacon. Without work suddenly he turned to agent Harold Leventhal and they developed a college concert schedule starting with Oberlin College in Ohio. Pete was one of the first artists to build a college concert market.
All of a sudden a member of the infamous John Birch Society from Hudson Falls started writing letters to the Post Star and Granville Sentinel complaining that a “known communist” like Seeger shouldn’t be able to give a concert at a high school upstate. The Granville American Legion got into the act and complained to the school board and wanted the concert stopped. I was under intense pressure to cancel the event. I was not one to back down and Pete told me that he would give me all the support I needed and to proceed.
I called Mac Manchester the editor of the Sentinel and the father of two of my best students and he arranged for a meeting with a member of the committee of the Legion at Vic Secci’s home. With Mac’s support we were able to convince the Legion committee that there would not be any so called un-American activities at the concert and I told them if there was I would resign my teaching position at Granville High. The committee gave us their support.
The protests came coming from the John Birch Society with letters to all the papers but all of a sudden tickets started selling fast to the concert. Then a miracle happened; the editor of the Albany Times Union came out with an editorial stating clearly that ”the Rotary dub of Granville and the school should be commended for their support of the Seeger concert and that Pete Seeger should be allowed to perform and that any effort to stop the concert was clearly un-American.” With this news we won, the concert quickly sold out, and Pete was even allowed to give an afternoon free concert for the students of the middle school.
The night of the show the American Legion members came in uniform and they were videoed by news folks from WGY Schenectady. Pete was greeted by loud applause by the packed audience and sang about the Hudson River, told stories about the sloops on the Hudson and told why we should be concerned for the beautiful River. He sang “Sailing Down My Dirty Stream,” The Erie Canal Song,” “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,” “Goodnight Irene,” “Rock Island Line,” “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,” and at the end of the concert asked the audience to stand while he sang “America the Beautiful.”
It was a wonderful and impressive concert and if I remember we raised about $3,500 for the Hudson River Sloop Restoration. Pete was really pleased with the results. I remember that four of my students worked hard on the concert: Paul Manchester, John Winn, Gene Roche and Sally Secci. The concert was a big event for the Granville and Washington County area.
After the show we drove 20 miles south on Route 29 to Salem and my home and as we got out of our cars a shout of “you communist bastards,” were aimed at us. Pete was taken back a bit and he told me “Bill, if you ever have any trouble from the Birch Society please let me know.” I was not worried.
Our concert was in early April I believe and I promised to stay in touch with Pete, Hal Cohen, Sandy Saunders and other members of the Sloop Restoration. Within a few days I received a hand-written letter from Pete thanking me for an the efforts on behalf of the Restoration and asking if I would spend the summer with he and Toshi in Beacon doing field work for the Sloop Restoration. Wow, I was excited, talked it over with my Mom and by the end of the school year I was off to spend the summer working for the Sloop Restoration and for a cleaner, beautiful Hudson River.