When I planned my first issue as editor of Persimmon Tree, I wanted to signal a new era; I interviewed Toshi Seeger as a way of flagging a number of my interests: politics, feminism, folk music. I wrote about driving up to Beacon, N.Y. from Manhattan; about Toshi’s frail health (which did not prevent her from greeting Judy Collins, who had come to record music with Pete, or from joining my friend Lee Bartell and me for the delicious lunch her daughter, Tinya, prepared with Toshi coaching); about her wicked sense of humor.
Prompted by Tinya, Toshi talked about her family (her Japanese father and well-to-do Virginian mother, both radicals), her education, her musical training, her meeting and marrying Pete. I heard many stories about the early years of their marriage: three children, moving to Beacon where they lived in a tent, hauling water from the river and building a house from trees they cut down themselves. Prompted by Tinya, Lee and Pete (who had joined us for lunch), she admitted to making films, to organizing the Newport Folk Festival with George Wein and later to organizing and programming the Great Hudson River Revival. Turns out she was also the original navigator of the Clearwater voyages; she had to teach Pete to sail. Through it all, Toshi (crediting her daughters) struggled to keep her identity.
Toshi Seeger died on July 9, 2013, a few weeks before her seventieth wedding anniversary. She was 91.
A few weeks later I attended her memorial service. The line-up was moving and impressive – not surprising. Judy Collins opened with “Amazing Grace.” Other musicians included Natalie Merchant and the Reagons, mother and daughter, as well as George Wein, Peter Yarrow and, of course, Pete himself. (Harry Belafonte had been eager to attend, but he was not feeling well that day.) Interspersed with singing and playing were many loving memories from generations of family, from friends, from colleagues. Here is what they emphasized:
Her physical strength
Her many organizational talents
Her role as Clearwater matriarch
Her loving spirit
Her radical politics
Toshi was so modest, a friend said, “she moved aside when the spotlight hit.” And that is why my interview with Toshi was the one and only time she had ever been interviewed. I caught all of that. I am proud I thought of talking to her, proud that I recorded her life and caught her twinkle, proud that her voice and her lovely face graced my first issue of Persimmon Tree.
On another topic: we set Activism as the Short Takes topic for the Spring issue. We received so many responses we decided to devote much of that issue to politics and activism. If you have stories to tell about your history of activism or a piece of fiction on that theme, please send them along to us. Check the submissions guidelines for details.