B y Jaime Thomas
It was the spring of 1967, and the United States’ involvement in Vietnam was in full swing.
Across the nation, protests were breaking out between those who supported it and those who were against it.
It was at this time that William Taggart, a local history teacher, thought he would try to bring popular folk singer and known anti-war activist Pete Seeger to Granville.
Seeger, who died two weeks ago at the age of 94, made a name for himself in the 1960s with his music and efforts to clean up the Hudson River. He was famous for such songs as “If I had a Hammer” and “Where have all the Flowers Gone?”
Taggart, who said he frequented Saratoga’s Caffé Lena, a folk-haven, learned that Seeger was going to play a show in Albany.
“I went to the concert and I met him after the concert,” Taggart said, and he asked Seeger what he thought about a performance in Granville. “He said fine, he’d be willing to do one.”
Controversy and communism
Taggart said he and Seeger planned out the concert in the fall; by spring, advertisements in the Granville Sentinel had spread the word about such a big name in music coming to Granville. However, not everyone was enthused and he said one “very, very right-winged man from Fort Ann caused all the problems.”
“All the sudden the John Birch Society got a hold of it, and they tried to stop the concert,” Taggart said of the society, whose goals include increased personal freedom and limited government. So he, local barber Vic Secci and former Sentinel publisher Mac Manchester, all of whom were instrumental in making the concert happen, met with the society.
“I said if Pete Seeger sang anything that was bad in the concert, they could fire me from school. Mac stood 100 percent behind me,” Taggart said. The John Birch Society, who feared Seeger was a communist, tried further to prevent him coming by reaching out to the school board.
But the concert, which the Lions Club had agreed to sponsor, sold out.
“When they tried to stop it, the editor in the Times Union wrote an editorial that praised the Lions Club in Granville for letting Pete Seeger sing,” Taggart said. Paul Manchester said his father, Mac, had written one as well.
He said his father’s adamant support of the show was out of character for a typically traditional man.
“The thing that’s most interesting was my father, a retired army colonel, stood behind him,” he said. “Seeger didn’t say anything controversial. Seeger did a great job. It wasn’t off the wall at all. He didn’t embarrass Bill Taggart, didn’t embarrass my father. Seeger was no fool. He knew who was there.”
Ellen Secci, who was a freshman in high school at the time, said unlike some of her peers she was aware of the dissent about the concert.
“We got a lot of hate phone calls in my house, hang-ups, veiled threats. I had students in the high school and teachers who said to me how terrible this was,” she said.
Gene Roche, who was 17 at the time, had a similar experience.
As a member of the student council, who was publicizing the event, he said he became associated with it. And his father, a member of the American Legion, was taking a lot of flak as well.
At the concert
At the evening benefit concert, uniformed members of the American Legion stood outside in protest, but Seeger told Roche to invite them in.
Manchester remembers the group sitting in the front row, and Roche said Seeger won them over by playing patriotic songs.
Along with a largely local audience, fans came from throughout the region to see Seeger play in the Granville High School auditorium; students sat in chairs on the stage surrounding the singer.
George McIntyre, who was 17 and working at the Sentinel at the time, got to meet Seeger after his performance—against his father’s wishes.
“He didn’t want me to go because he said ‘that guy’s a communist’—the government had labeled him as that. I told my father, ‘well I’m still going to go,’” McIntyre said. As a practical joke, Mac Manchester had Seeger invite the young man backstage under the falsehood that he was a banjo student; but McIntyre met the singer and held his instrument for a picture.
He said the concert was “really good” and in typical Seeger fashion, the singer engaged his audience.
“He’d have the whole crowd, everybody would sing along with him,” McIntyre said. Seeger sang traditional folk songs for about an hour-and-a-half.
“He ended the concert with “America the Beautiful,” and everybody stood and had a wonderful time,” Taggart said. “It was an exciting time.”
A unique time at GHS
Several of his peers agreed, noting the unique group of teachers in Granville High School during that period.
“It was a thinking outside the box kind of thing. There were teachers that were encouraging independent thinking,” Secci said.
“We were really lucky to be in Granville at a time that was special in the school. It was a really interesting time to be growing up. I felt I was encouraged by the faculty to ask the questions. I look back at that that I was really fortunate,” Roche agreed.
The concert brought in $3,000 for the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., an organization dedicated to preserving the Hudson River through building and sailing a replica of the sloops that sailed the waterway in the 18th and 19th centuries.
That money helped the organization launch in 1969 the Clearwater, a 106-foot long vessel that continues to ply the waters of the Hudson River today.
After the concert
After the show, Seeger went to the Freed home to talk and sing songs for the family and a small crowd.
“That was a really big occasion. He was just beginning his career; he wasn’t really that popular at the time. He was just a musician and it was just fun to have him in the house,” Alice Freed said.
But for others, the show had a greater impact.
“It’s one of those things that turns your life around. It really helped me to look and see how much bigger things were than Granville. Pete really helped me at a time in my life when it was really important,” Roche said.
Seeger later invited Taggart to spend the summer with him and his wife at their downstate home.
“So I did that. I went back to school, and I wasn’t happy.” Taggart said.
So one day that fall, he went to the superintendent’s office and told him he no longer wanted to work at the school.
“Pete Seeger talked me into raising money for the Clearwater,” Taggart said. After his time with Seeger he worked at the Lindhurst National Trust Historic Site and eventually moved to Florida, where he resides today.