This is a story from Mary McFaul as she recounted her and Laura Love’s meeting with Pete Seeger. Pete passed away on Monday at the age of 94.
A special thank you to Mary for allowing us to share this story and image.
In April of 2006, Laura Love was in Wilkesboro, NC as she was performing with her band at MerleFest. We were staying at the Hampton Inn along with many of the musicians who were playing through the weekend.
Festivals are often like family reunions for traveling musicians. You might run into a favorite friend whose path you cross only every few years when you both happen to be booked at the same event. There are always lots of joyful greetings backstage and very often exhilarating music is played by unique assemblies of folks in nooks and crannies behind the scenes, often into the wee hours after the festival has closed up shop for the night.
So you might think that most of these weary musos would not be seen before the crack of noon on any festival morning. However, one thing that musicians hate almost as much as getting up early is missing a free meal. The Hampton served a continental breakfast in a small cove off the lobby from 6 to 9AM. That’s right, they cleared it all out at 9AM. Most musicians I know don’t realize there are two 9:00s.
So on that Sunday morning, I roused Laura at 8:45 and told her to come downstairs with me to get coffee and a bun before they put it all away. She whined, she resisted and finally relented. When we got to the lobby, the breakfast room was jammed with bleary eyed musicians groping for coffee, scrounging for pastries, some of them still in pajamas. There was not one empty table so we figured we’d grab what we wanted and head back to the room. As we threaded our way through the crowd I looked up to see Joan Wernick catch my eye from across the room. She started to stand and with her hand planted on the back of her chair to prevent anyone from snatching it away from her, she called out “Hey Laura, I’ve got a seat for you!” Laura started to decline the invitation as there were many people nearby who had been waiting to sit down long before she had arrived. But I saw what was going on so I gave her a shove toward Nondi and said, “go sit down, you’re about to meet Pete Seeger.” As she approached the table, there sat 85 year old Pete, who had been sipping tea with Joan. Nondi put Laura in her vacant chair and said, “Pete, I’ve got to go. This is Laura Love, who sings a beautiful version of Amazing Grace.” Joan stepped away and I stood just close enough to hear what came next. Pete smiled and said, “Ah, Amazing Grace. Words penned by John Newton, an old slave trading sinner who found God and changed his ways.” He went on, giving the most informed history of that most famous hymn that I have ever heard. He told of the song’s transformations in the hands of all the cultures and religions and social movements that have claimed it. He spoke of his favorite versions sung by famous and unknown singers alike. Then he closed his eyes and began to sing softly, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost and now I’m found, was blind and now I see.” Laura leaned in and sang harmony to his lead. Most people only know two verses at most. Pete sang at least six and Laura kept up with him throughout. When he was finished he opened his eyes and beamed at her. She gave him a kiss on the cheek and stood to go.
At that point I looked around and realized that the entire busy clattering room had fallen silent and all eyes were on this little table where two old souls were having a quiet private moment.
I have had a million interesting experiences in the music business over the past 40 years. Sometimes I get them confused and I wonder, “did that really happen?” This is a photograph taken by Jen Todd , who was standing nearby that morning. When I start to doubt whether this meeting actually took place, I look at this image that sits on my bookshelf and think, “Yeah, that happened. I was there.”
Pete Seeger’s songs are some of the first that I heard as a child. He was important to me while I was developing my life long music habit in my teens. As I became aware of social injustices I noticed him on the front lines of many marches and started to understand the political might of music. He was a hero to every musician I met as I entered the business as a young adult. I finally met him several times when my music clients gained enough stature to be playing at the same events to which Pete was invited. And now that I am entering my older years, Pete has left us. What a long, beautiful time we had with him. My whole life, really. This kind, gentle man is a treasure for the entire world to hold and will not soon be forgotten. So long, Pete, it’s been good to know you.