Toshi Seeger, wife of folk singer and activist Pete Seeger, is gone. With her passing on July 9 has come a flurry of public accolades long overdue. Count me as part of that chorus, as we now feel free to sing out praises that she actively avoided or dismissed in her lifetime. She spoke honestly and directly, liked hard workers who tried their best, and she didn’t appreciate hierarchy or undue praise; she was a mother, grandmother, gardener, awesome organizer, filmmaker and great cook. Toshi may have been petite, but you didn’t want to cross her.
I met Toshi and Pete in 1982 as a volunteer crew member of the flagship sloop of the Clearwater organization they co-founded to help protect the Hudson River. As I worked my way up through the hawse pipe from “Mate of the Month” — now called an apprentice so as not to sow any confusion about shipboard duties! — to First Mate, it was always obvious to me that Toshi had sculpted many of the progressive values and processes that made the community run so beautifully and courageously in the face of the status quo that wasn’t always so happy with “singing hippie environmentalists.”
Even in the 1980s, the Clearwater was one of a few tall sailing ships that welcomed women on board in deck jobs. Somewhere in my files I have more than one hand-written rejection letter from a tall ship captain explaining he would only offer me, a young woman with experience, a galley position if anything at all. I’m sure that Toshi had something to do with setting a different overall guiding principle for the Clearwater community and the ship: everyone welcome.
In fact, if you read any of the heartfelt stories or conventional obituaries, all of them will mention that Toshi was the woman behind the man Pete Seeger — and no one can argue this was not true. Both of them would tell you in various ways how they supported each other. Toshi was clearly behind the scenes managing Pete, his schedule, and his wild and creative ideas. Pete has been known to say, “Well of course Toshi is a good organizer, she’s been organizing me for” — fill in the blank — “years!”
As crew members of the ship Clearwater, our days off were few and far between, and during them some of us would escape the boat life to visit the hill in Beacon where the Seegers lived. The funny thing was that just as everyone was welcome, there were always expectations of that “everyone”: Everyone had to be willing to work — up early to chop wood with Pete, or weed in the garden with Toshi. Some day off! But those times were worth it.
I learned to make pesto from Toshi — in the time-saving, mass-quantity style of a veteran organizer. Leaves, stems and all would go into the blender with garlic slightly skinned, which was a strategic decision to make the production time shorter. I also remember once picking beans in the garden on the hillside, enjoying the view on my day off, when Toshi quipped something like, “How long does it take to pick beans? Have you never done this before?” She was serious, and I was no slouch, but one did not dawdle on ordinary chores.
The Great Hudson River Revival, a fabulous and now huge annual music and activist festival on the river’s shore-front, was one of Toshi’s masterpieces. She was instrumental in creating and expanding the vision of the festival as a forum for political action and activism. The Revival comes alive each year as the massive handiwork of more than 1,000 volunteers, who are all well fed and taken care of. Teams were set up for everything — from communications and accessibility to recycling and performer hospitality. One of my favorites, and way ahead of its time, was the litter-picking crew, which provided a great example of this attention to caretaking. Since the Litter Pickers welcomed both kids and their parents to the team, that’s where my daughter grew to love the festival as well. Rolling with changing times, it’s now called the “Zero Waste” crew.
With connections across the music world, and her awareness of the importance of involving local communities and making space for a spectrum of people and points of view, Toshi included an “Activist Area” at the festival and made sure that there was always new music that many had never heard before. No matter what group or musician, no one could play a headline set more than two years in a row —not even Pete. Although disappointing to fans and performers alike at times, this was an expression of her distaste for pubic accolades, while making a statement about the importance of diversity and inclusion.
Although Toshi was incredibly forward and progressive thinking, she was also a product of her time and her upbringing. Toshi’s father was an exiled Japanese communist, her mother a runaway Southern belle; this marriage between the belief in the power communal work and in the value of hospitality seems exemplified in her life. She was in some ways the woman supporting a man out front — and she embraced that, not wanting the limelight herself, and she had to set aside some of her own artistic projects to support Pete in realizing his work. Certainly a main message one gets from Clearwater is that there is never only one person doing anything — there are always many supporting players.
Pete tells the story of their first “Stone Soup” experience on a sound recording; it embodies so much of what I feel I learned from them about community-building and relationship. As a strategic and smart organizer of people and events, Toshi placed a notice in a local paper asking folks to come down to the waterfront and bring a contribution for soup. Toshi brought the pot and the starter stone, and Pete kept the fire going all day. A thousand people then ate a most delicious Stone Soup cooked up by a partnership, made real with specific contributions, and enjoyed by a community that continues to inspire people even now, throughout the Hudson Valley and beyond.
Both Pete and Toshi worked hard at passing on their knowledge. They would talk comfortably about “when we’re gone,” and they handed over the reigns of the Clearwater organization and the Revival years ago, intentionally letting go so the next generation could take over. Many founders never do that; it’s a testament to them that Clearwater is still flourishing.
Though is often said that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone, that’s not the case for me with Toshi Seeger. I have always felt, and feel, so fortunate to have known her and to be part of the whole Clearwater experience — so much more than just an organization, a ship or even a community.
Thank you, Toshi. Hugs to the extended family, and here’s to a life lived well.
At a time when Americans had little interest in the Vietnam War, a small peace group decided to stir people to action by sailing past the military to deliver needed medicines.
Queer activist and movement lawyer Z Williams discusses what needs to be done to achieve queer and trans liberation.
Music is making a comeback in movement spaces, as organizers rediscover how song culture strengthens the capacity to create social change.