[review + recipe + giveaway] Stand Up and Sing!: Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich and Adam Gustavson

“Being generous of spirit is a wonderful way to live.” ~ Pete Seeger

As a music lover coming of age in the 60’s, I was aware of Pete Seeger’s music long before I knew who he was.

I’d heard the Kingston Trio’s rendition of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” Peter, Paul & Mary’s “If I Had a Hammer,” and the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” regularly on the radio, songs that eventually became part of my social consciousness DNA along with Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin.”

It wasn’t until I saw Pete with Arlo Guthrie in “Alice’s Restaurant” that I became more curious about his life as a singer, songwriter, social activist, environmentalist, and collector of folk songs. I was surprised to discover he was behind so many of the songs I loved.

Who was this tall beanpole of a man, this crackerjack banjo picker who could get people all over the country singing and clapping along, stomping their feet to the beat, rousing their emotions enough to spur political action? Who was this community, log-cabin-and-sloop-building-man who steadfastly believed in the power of song through good times and bad?

After reading Stand Up and Sing!: Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich and Adam Gustavson (Bloomsbury, 2017), I better understood why Pete himself probably escaped my notice, and I learned more about how he became a beloved American icon.

In this first ever Pete Seeger picture book biography, Reich and Gustavson present a fascinating overview of Pete’s long, purposeful life, highlighting key events of his seven decade career, where music and social activism were inextricably intertwined.

Reich begins with a typical Seeger moment on stage wowing his audience, and then she traces the origins of Pete’s core beliefs and passions, introducing him as someone who was born with “music in his bones,” a toddler who’d “toot, shake, and bang on the instruments Mother left all over the apartment, his knees jiggling and his hips a-wiggling.”

Music was a natural and essential part of family life, before and after his parents separated. During his boarding school years, Pete became impressed by Native Americans, especially their custom of sharing everything:

I decided that was the way to live: no rich, no poor. If there was food, everyone ate; if there was no food, everyone went hungry.

Living during the Great Depression reinforced this belief, especially when Pete and his father visited poor neighborhoods, marched in parades for working people, and attended union gatherings in NYC. The protest songs he heard about workers’ rights to “equality, justice, and respect” made a deep impression on him. Those “thousands of voices united by a common purpose” would forever echo in Pete’s mind, motivating and guiding his actions thereafter.

In high school and college, music remained an obsession. He was first exposed to the banjo by one of his teachers, and later when attending a music and dance festival in North Carolina, he heard the “rippling rhythms of the five-string banjo” and was totally hooked. He largely taught himself how to play by listening to records and imitating what he heard. More interested in “workers’ strikes and unions, the civil war in Spain, and the Nazis in Germany” than his studies, he dropped out of college.

Pete then began to work for family friend Alan Lomax, a folklorist, ethnomusicologist and archivist at the Library of Congress who collected and recorded folk music in the field. This job exposed Pete to a wide range of vernacular music (blues, ballads, lullabies, hollers, chants) as he continued to hone his banjo skills.

Through Alan, Pete met Woody Guthrie, from whom he learned a lot about playing, singing and performing, and with whom he traveled to places like Texas and Oklahoma, performing at union meetings. He saw firsthand how “music could fill a room with peace and harmony,” lift people’s spirits, and give them hope.

Back in NYC, Pete formed a group called the Almanac Singers. Whether playing for autoworkers in Detroit, longshoremen in San Francisco, or 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden, they could fire up an audience in the name of safer workplaces and better pay.

Soon after Pete married Toshi-Aline Ohta, he was drafted and deployed to the South Pacific, where he sang to wounded soldiers. After WWII ended, Pete continued to support the Labor Movement. He and Toshi built a log cabin in Beacon, New York, while racial tensions in the country were quickly escalating. After a scary incident where his car windows were shattered by rock-throwing thugs, Pete was more determined than ever to stand up for his beliefs.

He next joined a new singing group, the Weavers, who became very successful with hits like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Goodnight, Irene.” But Pete was unhappy with the lifestyle, preferring his family, log cabin, and singing for ordinary working people over the bright lights of stardom.

Hard times followed after the Weavers were blacklisted because the government deemed some of their songs unpatriotic. Pete, because of his affiliation with the Communist Party, was subpoenaed by Congress and indicted for contempt. With this threat of prison hanging over his head for years, he was barely able to make a living, since he was effectively banned from commercial television and other mainstream outlets. But Pete remained steadfast and kept on singing, performing, releasing records, and going wherever he was needed.

Martin Luther King Jr., Pete Seeger, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks and Ralph Abernathy (1957)

While the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum, he met Martin Luther King Jr. in Tennessee and introduced him to “We Shall Overcome,” an anthem that soon galvanized protesters all over the country. Pete also performed at college campuses where thousands protested the Vietnam War. And closer to home, Pete and Toshi devised a plan to build a sloop to inspire people to clean up the Hudson River. Whenever and wherever there was work to be done, Pete was there with his voice, his banjo, his heart, and his unwavering faith in the people.

Pete singing for a group of children, protesting the dumping of PCBs into the Hudson (1975)

Just as important as working for “a clean river, a peaceful planet, a living wage” was Pete’s commitment to preserving American folk music traditions. He especially liked performing for groups of children and teaching them about the rich musical heritage that is every American’s birthright.

As his ancestors did before him, Pete planted “folk music seeds” for new generations, fostering the dynamic process of ‘sing, adapt, pass it on’ inherent to the genre. As younger artists recorded his music, some of his songs became hits. He was mentor and role model for many folk revival artists in the 50’s and 60’s. The circle keeps turning, with new voices inspiring others just as Pete did decade after decade.

In her Author’s Note, Susanna explains her sense of personal connection to Pete’s story. Like Pete, she came from a family tradition of political activism, and had a parent who was a musicologist. A native and long time resident of the Hudson Valley, she saw Pete perform many times, including at one of the first Clearwater Festivals.

Stand Up and Sing! is a well researched and engaging introduction to Pete’s life, and Susanna’s passion for her subject shines through. A long full life of 94 years is a lot to cover in 48 pages, but Susanna has effectively captured the essence of the man for a young audience, emphasizing the ideals for which he will continue to be revered and remembered:

  • Have the courage of your convictions and never give up
  • Follow your passion
  • Stand up for the truth and what is right
  • Equality, respect, and justice for all
  • People standing together can effect change
  • Promote peace, love, harmony, and empathy
  • Getting the work done is more important than being famous
  • Never underestimate the power of music to uplift, heal, energize, inspire, and bring people together.

 

Adam Gustavson’s mixed media illustrations help shape the narrative with full color art alternating with pencil drawings. The rich gouache paintings spotlight key moments in the timeline, while the drawings establish a comfortable continuity with related details.

In this blog post, Adam describes how he made the pictures. I found this part especially interesting:

The artwork for the book takes a couple directions, medium-wise. I wanted the backgrounds to have a texture reminiscent of a calfskin banjo head, something accomplished with thinned down oil paint on prepared paper and a lot of trial and error.

 

Adam has done a beautiful job of creating a captivating visual context for Pete’s story. I liked seeing Pete as a young boy playing in the woods, as a boarding school student penning a letter home, and a college age Pete holding his five-string banjo while listening intently to a record (probably my favorite spread).

I also liked the illustration of Pete on stage with Woody Guthrie, the wood floor planks and bare light bulb overhead taking us right into the heart of that union meeting. These pictures create a sense of intimacy and illuminate Susanna’s portrait of Pete as deeply motivated but humble and unassuming, making him more accessible to readers.

PP&M, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Freedom Singers, Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel sing “We Shall Overcome” at the Newport Folk Festival (1963)

Pete was someone who definitely walked the walk and as Peter Yarrow says in his Foreword, “lived the message of his music.” His story is especially timely and relevant today, as new waves of political and social activism have swept the country. The fight for human rights and equality is ongoing, and young people need strong role models who mean what they say, remain true to themselves, and are willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good.

I love Susanna’s closing words:

Pete passed away in 2014, but his work isn’t done. For in times of war, the world needs peace. In times of hatred, the world needs love. In times of injustice, the world needs truth. And whenever people gather in the name of freedom, they find strength and courage in song.

Today on the Hudson River, when Clearwater’s sails fill with wind and singing rises from her deck, she tells a story about standing tall, binding people together in friendship, and lifting them up with the power of music.

All ages will be inspired by this book and will want to learn more about Pete and hear more of his music.

What is your favorite Pete Seeger song?

Here’s mine. Sadly, I don’t think there will ever be a time when the message of this song isn’t relevant or doesn’t resonate.

 

*

🍓PETE’S STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE RECIPE 🍓

 

Pete was wise in so many ways; he knew that to attract people to a festival you needed good food. He was fond of saying, “You know, there are rather better banjo players in the world than me, but I always claim I make the best strawberry shortcake.”

Each June, his Beacon Sloop Club hosts its annual Strawberry Festival at Pete and Toshi Seeger Park in Beacon, NY. It is one of several food-themed festivals held during the year to raise funds and promote awareness of environmental and social causes. Pete’s recipe, which calls for Hudson Valley berries, real whipped cream and a freshly-baked homemade biscuit, will once again draw oodles of hungry folks eager for a taste.

After reading about Pete’s strawberry shortcake we simply had to make some — even though we obviously don’t have Hudson Valley berries here in Virginia. We thought it was a nice way to celebrate Susanna and Adam’s new book — and it is, after all,  National Strawberry Month. I’m sharing his recipe just as he told it in a 1982 Mother Earth News interview.

Let me tell you, I think Pete’s right. His SS is so good. My mustached sous chef, who prepared the strawberries, as well as the entire Alphabet Soup kitchen staff, lapped up the whipped cream like krazy kitties. And who can resist a warm, flaky biscuit? Buttering one just out of the oven and immediately topping it with berries and cream makes the cream a little melty, and it likes to say a friendly hello to the melted butter and berry juice just before it goes in your mouth. Yum!

Mr. Cornelius even came up with a new saying:

First you Stand Up and Sing! — then you Sit Down and Eat. 🙂

Enjoy!

Pete Seeger's Clearwater Festival Strawberry Shortcake

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Directions

Just before dinner (not earlier), rinse and hull 2 quarts of fresh, ripe strawberries. Then slice about 1-1/2 quarts of the fruit into large chunks. (Crushing the berries would make the sauce too juicy.) Set the remaining whole strawberries aside to use later as decoration. If desired, sweeten the sliced fruit to taste. (A few tablespoons of sugar or honey should sufficiently please your palate.) Put in icebox.

Next, whip 1 pint of heavy cream, adding 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla and a little sweetener to taste as the cream becomes lighter. Then chill the topping.

Now, with clean fingers, combine 2-1/2 cups of unbleached flour, 3 teaspoons of baking powder, 3 tablespoons of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of salt with 6 tablespoons of butter until it is smooth — no lumps. Set the mixture aside while you grease a cookie sheet.

With that done, you can relax and eat your dinner — but preheat the oven first. You’ll want it to be medium-hot (425 to 450 degrees F) before you put the biscuits in. About 20 minutes before you plan to serve the dessert, go back to the kitchen.

Next, quickly stir a scant cup of milk into the flour mixture. The consistency of the batter should be much thicker than that for a cake, but not as dry as typical rolled biscuit dough. Spoon the batter onto the cookie sheet in eight (2-inch) lumps, and pop the works into the preheated oven.

The biscuits generally take 15 to 20 minutes to bake. When the dough has turned golden brown, take the shortcakes out of the oven and carry them to the table. Now comes the time when seconds count!

Working as fast as you possibly can, slice a piping hot biscuit, insert a pat of butter between the halves and place the cake in a serving bowl. While you’re slicing the next biscuit, have a friend dollop a generous spoonful of the sliced strawberries on top, followed by a great blob of whipped cream and a garnish of whole strawberries.

Then eat the treat right away. Now you know why Clearwater Strawberry Shortcake is the best in the world! And why most restaurants cannot serve it.

~ from The Plowboy Pete Seeger Interview (Mother Earth News, 1982), as seen at Jama’s Alphabet Soup.

*

Watch Pete talk about the festival and the shortcake here:

*

 

 

STAND UP AND SING!: Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice
written by Susanna Reich
illustrated by Adam Gustavson
published by Bloomsbury, March 2017
Picture Book Biography for ages 8+, 48 pp.
*Includes Foreword by Peter Yarrow, Author’s Note, Quote sources and Bibliography

**Junior Library Guild Selection

*

🎤 SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY! 🎼

The publisher has generously donated a copy of Stand Up and Sing! for one lucky Alphabet Soup reader. For a chance to win, simply leave a comment at this post no later than midnight (EDT) Wednesday, May 17, 2017. You may also enter by sending an email with SEEGER in the subject line to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to U.S residents only, please. Good Luck!

*

Tara Smith is hosting the Roundup at A Teaching Life. Take her a strawberry or two and check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere this week.

*

“I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing for an audience, no matter what religion, or color of their skin, or situation in life.” ~ Pete Seeger 


*Interior spreads posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2017 Susanna Reich, illustrations © 2017 Adam Gustavson, published by Bloomsbury. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2017 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

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62 thoughts on “[review + recipe + giveaway] Stand Up and Sing!: Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich and Adam Gustavson

  1. Oh, Jama! I have been steeped in the Thirties in my own writing and teach kids about The Great Depression…..I love that this book has been written. What a wonderful review. I’m off to the link to the illustrator now. THANK YOU for sharing this book today!

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    1. This book is especially timely, and a good way to introduce kids to social activism. Read the book, share Pete’s music, talk about the role of art as a means of disseminating TRUTH.

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  2. Fasinatimg and wonderful,sounds like a must have book for our library. Thank you so much for sharing.

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  3. What a wonderful tribute to a great man! My stepson went to school with Pete’s grandson, and I had the pleasure of meeting Pete on several occasions. Of course, the first time I met him(having been a life-long fan) I was completely star-struck, and could barely utter a word. One of my favorite memories of Pete was when we went skiing with him and his grandson and a few other friends. The tall, lanky (late eighties) Pete really stood out on the slopes in his bright yeallow sailing foulies (foul weather gear)! Fashion was never his thing. Afterwards, we went out for Chinese food and he composed a song right then and there for his grandson’s birthday, and sang it for the whole restaurant. I was lucky to have had the privilege of meeting him. His legacy of peace and equality are more important now than ever.
    I’m so glad this book is out. It looks great, and I look forward to learning more about him!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Such good timing for this book, when hate is becoming more socially acceptable because of Donald Trump. Song is such a wonderful way to fight hatred and discrimination! (Also, that strawberry shortcake looks amazing!)

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    1. Perfect timing for this book. Thank goodness for people like Pete who carried the torch for such a long time. His music lives on; his legacy continues to inspire us to keep up the good fight.

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  5. The book looks wonderful! And gosh I didn’t know about the Strawberry Shortcake! But as I am sure you know, the quality of the berries can make a huge difference. I would love to try this recipe AFTER the farmer’s markets start coming out with “real” strawberries! Favorite song: I’d probably go with This Land is Your Land.

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    1. Yes, sweet, in season local berries make a huge difference. We’re going to keep enjoying this recipe as long as the strawberries are good this month and into early summer.

      “This Land is Your Land” was one of Woody’s greatest songs, and Pete certainly helped to popularize it.

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  6. I suspect many of us are hearing the clarion call of his protest songs, many of which are (sadly) timeless. Lovely tribute to a great man, in words and illustrations.

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    1. It feels like we’re living the 60’s again, with all the tumult and turmoil. Many issues — racism, women’s rights, etc., still plague us. But at least back then we didn’t have to worry about our President’s sanity.

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  7. Wow Jama thanks for this rich post on Pete Seeger, and the new book, it looks fabulous as was your review!!!!! I’m a long time fan of Pete Seeger and a banjo player. The strawberry festival video was mouth watering, my daughter and I will have to try the recipe out. Thanks again for this spectacular, timely post!

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    1. Didn’t realize you played the banjo, Michelle. How COOL! It’s a wonderful instrument, makes me happy whenever I hear it, which isn’t too often.

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  8. We do have a rich American history of folk music, protests, thinking for ourselves, and finding our voices. That is the beautiful counterpoint to Trump. Money isn’t the only thing that talks. People hearts won’t be silenced. Thanks for reviewing this beautiful book.

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  9. Jama, this was an absolutely wonderful post and review. Having grown up playing his music (yes, I am that old!), it was a pleasure to read this and learn more about Pete Seeger. Now it is time to buy the book! Mahalo for writing this!

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    1. Hi Margo! Glad you enjoyed the post. I’m afraid I didn’t hear much about Pete in Hawaii while I was growing up (I was certainly old enough to know about his contemporaries) — he simply didn’t appear on commercial TV or on the radio, which is where I heard about musicians I grew to love. Thank goodness many other artists covered his songs, so at least I was familiar with them at an early age.

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  10. I shared this book a few weeks ago, but not in the wonderful detail you shared, Jama. It is a special book for a special person in our history. I loved reading that he introduced Dr. King to “We Shall Overcome.” My husband and I took our then young kids to see Pete years ago, and it is a memory I will keep.Also, I love the strawberry shortcake biscuity goodness, just like a grandmother made. Wonderful post! (Don’t put me in the drawing. I own this book.)

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    1. Yes, that thing about Dr. King is too cool — didn’t realize that until I read this book! I remember your mentioning how Pete sang to your kids in the front row. Enjoyed reading your review, Linda. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Can’t wait to read this one, Jama!! What a timely, important & inspirational book!!! Boy do we need it more than ever now, will all of the assaults on democracy in this administration. Thank you for sharing & peace!! ❤

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    1. Yes, there’s nothing like music to keep up the morale. Many of the sixties protest songs feel “new” again — we’re fighting some of the same battles.

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  12. I’m so glad that young people are being introduced to this brave, spirited, dedicated, loving hero, who was willing to risk so much and give so much for the causes he believed in. My parents were young people in the 1960s and 1970s, and remember marching in anti-Vietnam protests, and being so much more political than my generation ever has been. For so long there seems to have been such a terrible sense of apathy and hopelessness in my millenial generation – my parents marched and protested because they deeply believed that they could actually make a difference, while we felt powerless. It seems that the fires of resistance and protest have started to be rekindled, and hopefully the stories of trailblazers like Seeger can help inspire and positively direct this spirit of protest and change!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wonderful to hear about your parents, Jane. I think this past election really lit a fire under the younger voters in our country. This gives me a lot of hope. I do think it’s time the older politicians get out of the way and let some fresh thinking in. I think the millenials are more open to listening to and working with each other to solve problems. The old career politicians in Washington are not — they’re stuck in their self-serving craven ways and won’t budge. Corruption is rampant and for them a way of life.

      It’s good to read about trailblazers like Seeger — who in turn beget new trailblazers. We certainly need them.

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  13. Thank you for sharing so much of this new book–and important highlights from Pete Seeger’s life. His life and message are indeed timely today, as always. I have hope that people of all ages are beginning to see again the importance of being politically active and letting their voices be heard.

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    1. Yes, there’s definitely a new wave of activism in our country. It’s too easy to become complacent. I don’t ever remember a time as bad as this, when our very democracy was at stake.

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    1. That was such a beautiful tribute, Michelle. Didn’t realize you began your post with the same Seeger quote! Great minds think alike. 🙂 I love those words from Arlo (whom I’ve seen several times in concert). I regret I never got to see Pete sing live. Lucky you, living nearby and able to attend those first festivals. I love your mention of his grandfatherly eyes. Kindness and love radiating from within.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I’m intrigued by this book thanks to your detailed and enlightening review. I confess that I don’t know his music as well as I should, despite first coming across his name in a testimonial on the sleeve of Don McLeans fabulous debut “Tapestry” album when I bought it on vinyl in the early 1970s!

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    1. I think there are many of us who feel the same — not knowing his music as well as we should or wish. But luckily we can easily remedy that. I’m glad there are children’s books written about Pete — there’s another picture book about Pete coming out next month by Leda Schubert and Raul Colon, and a middle grade biography by Anita Silvey (which I’m going to read next). Sometimes it’s good to read a kid’s book to get all the essentials before reading an adult biography which goes into more depth and detail. 🙂 Thanks for visiting the blog and commenting, Steve.

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  15. Jama — My husband and I spend a lot of time in the Hudson Valley and made a pilgrimage to sail on the Clearwater a couple of summers ago. Such memories, but I wish I’d had some of Pete’s SS with us. Thank you for sharing all of this wonderful info! He was such a treasure. 🙂

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    1. Lucky you! You’ll have to attend the Strawberry Festival next month for some of that shortcake. Wish we had Hudson Valley berries here — they look SO sweet.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I met Pete Seeger many years ago in Poughkeepsie, NY, down by the Hudson River at some environmental gathering. He was a great guy. Thanks for telling me about this book. I need to get a copy.

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  17. Pete Seeger, protest songs, banjo music, AND strawberry shortcake! YUM!! (I already own a copy of the book. No drawing for me!)

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  18. Pete Seeger was a national treasure whom I hope will be remembered for decades. Ride on, dear friend!

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    1. He’ll definitely be remembered always; he’s more than earned a permanent place in folk music history. What’s even better is his legacy of activism. Music with a purpose, music with an impact beyond entertainment.

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  19. I loved this post, Jama! My brothers were huge Pete Seeger fans, and I’m familiar with some of Seeger’s songs but I didn’t know his story as told in this book. Thanks for another rich read!

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    1. Good to hear your brothers were such big fans. I love learning about the life stories of people I admire, especially those in the arts.

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  20. When I was in high school, during Pete Seeger’s blacklist period, my gym teacher, Miss Lydia Murray, invited him to come sing at our Girl’s Athletic Association banquet. He came with banjo, axe, and stump, explained work songs with the axe and the stump and then sang his heart out for our little group of high school girls. He was amazing. I did not even know who he was but I loved him and still do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a great memory! I’m enjoying all these personal stories about meeting and/or hearing Seeger perform. Thanks for sharing!

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  21. Wow, clearly I need to read this, since I really have no idea who this guy is, except for a protest singer… and I need to know more, as well as maybe learn a few more of his songs than the ONE I know. ::sigh:: So many books, so many songs, so little time.

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    1. You will enjoy learning about his life and hearing more of his music — and be surprised that some of the songs you liked all along were written by him.

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  22. It is hard to believe this is the first ever picture book biography of Pete Seeger! Long overdue. I have heard of a lot of his songs, but didn’t actually realize they were his. His strawberry shortcake looks divine… Thanks for shining a light on this important man and this new book, Jama. The fight goes on… =)

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    1. Yes, I was surprised to learn it’s the first PB — coincidentally another is coming out next month. I imagine there will be more for his 100th birthday in two years.

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  23. I also am surprised that this is the first PB biography! What a treasure. Thank you for sharing in such detail – I look forward to seeing those amazing illustrations first-hand. I learned much in this review, and love the precious memories/connections shared in the comments.
    {Please tell Mr. C. I think his slogan is perfect, by the way. XO)

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    1. Thanks for dropping by to read, Robyn! Mr. C sends special hugs your way. Hope you get to see this book soon. You will enjoy it!

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  24. Thank you for this wonderful and timely post, Jama. And the recording boosted my spirits in this crazy week. I will try to go to the strawberry festival next month or at least make Pete’s shortcake!

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  25. I love Pete Seeger songs and they were a big part of my growing up. Many memories when I think of times I sang his songs. And until reading your thorough post I didn’t realize what an amazing person he was. As Seeger’s music “wowed” his audience, I think this book will wow readers!

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