Pete Seeger’s Banjo Lesson
Edna Garte

Pete Seeger visited Camp Kinderland, on one occasion when I was there as a teenager. I caught him outdoors, after he left the dining hall where he had been talking with some of the staff, and asked if he’d show me a beginning banjo technique.

“I love the banjo,” I told him, “Though I only play a little guitar.”

He may have looked around for someone to rescue him, but apparently there was no one there.

“Let’s go sit down,” he said.

We picked an almost-wooded area, with shade trees, and some leaves scattered on the ground underneath them. It was secluded enough to give us privacy, but in plain sight of anyone who might otherwise wonder how to define ‘banjo lesson’. The breeze brought the scent of summer woods and grassy fields near the lake.

Pete did show me a basic banjo technique. (He showed it to me quite a few times, actually, before I picked it up! I don’t remember it exactly – but it had something to do with the way you move your fingers and your thumb… You pluck with your fingers and come up with your thumb...) I’m not a banjo player, but after turning it around backwards a few times, I found it worked well on the guitar.

Recently on a Public Radio interview with Bruce Springstein, the interviewer referred to Pete Seeger as a “legend”. I winced a little at the term. The man who showed me the banjo technique was no legend. He was a very real human being. He just came across as someone who was in a place where he belonged. That’s something any young person – or older person – would want to see as much of as possible.

Back in Camp Kinderland, Pete had seemed surprised (hopefully pleasantly) that I wasn’t stopped by the way he and other artists had been placed on pedestals. (Between pedestals and jail cells for the politically deviant, the placement of artists could become difficult.)

I said, “But you’re singing for us!” At sixteen, it’s very easy to assure adults of what reality is about.

“Us…” He looked a little quizzical. “But who are we?”

This was the mid-fifties, and by then, mature adults had begun to question the connotations of that plural pronoun – especially when politics had people so divided. (Arlo Guthrie, decades later, was on a stage with him when Pete used the word ‘we’ in relation to something. Arlo began singing it as a vocal exercise in the form of descending siren -- “weeeee”. Pete burst out laughing.)

Back at Camp Kinderland, I had an uncomplicated answer. “We’re the people!”

“Yes, the people. But who are the people?”

It was a question I would come to understand very well. Later, I found it almost impossible to get myself in touch with even the memory of what that word had meant to me at the time – its abuse had become so clear. But I’m reminded now of what Woody Guthrie wrote in his autobiography, Bound for Glory, about a man in a box car who said he felt we all share the same spirit. I think of all the people I meet who embody that spirit. It’s not something you can define – but it’s no big mystery either. It’s just the mystery that exists in everyone at all times.

Edna Garte is a musician, writer, artist and teacher. She can be contacted at

© Edna Garte 2006

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