A time for every purpose under heaven: Free sing-a-long Pete Seeger Fest returns to Ashfield, April 6

Sarah Pirtle of Shelburne Falls is a co-organizer of the Pete Seeger Festival. At 12, Pirtle taught herself how to play guitar using Seeger’s “Folksinger Guitar Guide.”

Sarah Pirtle of Shelburne Falls is a co-organizer of the Pete Seeger Festival. At 12, Pirtle taught herself how to play guitar using Seeger’s “Folksinger Guitar Guide.” CONTRUBUTED

Ruth Pelham, a singer-songwriter and old friend of Seeger’s whose songwriting he highly praised, is coming from Albany to participate in the Pete Seeger Fest, April 6.

Ruth Pelham, a singer-songwriter and old friend of Seeger’s whose songwriting he highly praised, is coming from Albany to participate in the Pete Seeger Fest, April 6. CONTRIBUTED

Yosl Kurland of Colrain is a co-organizer of the Peter Seeger Festival. Kurland met the famed folk singer when his Wholesale Klezmer Band performed at Carnegie Hall.

Yosl Kurland of Colrain is a co-organizer of the Peter Seeger Festival. Kurland met the famed folk singer when his Wholesale Klezmer Band performed at Carnegie Hall. CONTRIBUTED

Musician Hana Zara will be singing some of Seeger’s great songs at the Pete Seeger Fest on April 6 in Ashfield.

Musician Hana Zara will be singing some of Seeger’s great songs at the Pete Seeger Fest on April 6 in Ashfield. CONTRIBUTED

Pete Seeger sings at the Library of Congress in 2000. The April 6 sing-along in Ashfield is free and open to all ages. 

Pete Seeger sings at the Library of Congress in 2000. The April 6 sing-along in Ashfield is free and open to all ages.  LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

By SHERYL HUNTER

For the Gazette

Published: 04-04-2024 6:25 PM

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Pete Seeger’s death. The legendary folk musician, political activist, and environmentalist touched lives around the world with his songs, which were rich in hope and history and exhibited a strong sense of social justice.

His impact is felt here in the Valley, where a group of musicians, many of whom knew the man personally, are greatly influenced by Seeger’s music and message.

Some of these singer-songwriters will come together on Saturday, April 6, at 2 p.m., to celebrate Pete Seeger’s life and music at the Pete Seeger Festival, which will be a sing-along for all ages at the Ashfield Congregation Church.

Local musicians Annie Hasset, Ben Grosscup, Norma Jean Hayes, Yosl Kurland, Jay Mankato, Adam Morse, Sarah Pirtle and Hana Zara will be singing some of Seeger’s great songs. Ruth Pelham, a singer-songwriter and old friend of Seeger’s whose songwriting he highly praised, is coming from Albany. The festival will be divided into three parts: the songs that Seeger sang, songs he wrote, and new songs for these times.

Seeger was a leader in the folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s and went on to give us a catalog of songs that remain an integral part of American folk heritage: “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have all the Flowers Gone,” “John Henry,” “Turn Turn Turn” and his adaptation of “We Shall Overcome” are some that we all know.

He sang his songs to support labor unions, the civil rights movement, ending the Vietnam War, and stopping the pollution in his beloved Hudson River. When times were tough, Pete was there. He believed music could inspire people to make the world a better place. He kept singing and encouraging others to sing with him until his death at the age of 94.

The Pete Seeger Festival is being organized by writer, singer, songwriter, and educator Sarah Pirtle of Shelburne Falls, and musician Yosl Kurland of Colrain. At the age of 12, Pirtle taught herself how to play guitar using Seeger’s “Folksinger Guitar Guide.” Later, as the principal founder of the Children’s Music Network, she met Seeger, who was very supportive of her work. Kurland met the famed folk singer when his Wholesale Klezmer Band performed at Carnegie Hall.

“When Pete died, I couldn’t stop crying,” said Pirtle, whose admiration for the man can be heard in her voice. “I was just so impacted by him, and I thought we had to do something. So I began to call all the people I knew who loved Pete.” They, too, were heavy with sadness and wanted to share their sense of loss while celebrating all he had given the world.

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Some were old friends, like musician Lorre Wyatt, while others never knew the man, but his words had touched them so deeply that they felt like they did. They came together and raised their voices singing Seeger’s songs, and the first Pete Seeger Festival was born.

“It was a combination of grieving together and keeping his light strong,” is how Pirtle described that first event.

The festival organizers decided to keep that light strong by holding the festival every year until COVID shut the world down. Now, after four years, the Pete Seeger Festival is back. And the timing couldn’t be better — the world needs Pete Seeger’s ability to give hope to those about to give up more than ever.

“I think we need Pete’s light because he is a moral giant,” said Pirtle. “It’s like he taught you that you are part of the web of light and that brings you hope.”

Adam Morse of Turners Falls is a newcomer to the festival. His grandfather worked with Seeger at an integrated summer camp in the 1940s, so he was exposed to folk music as a child. He agrees that holding this festival is of great importance.

“I think it’s important because Pete Seeger’s music has had such a monumental role over the past 75 years — in this country and around the world. But I feel in the past ten years much of his music has not received the exposure that it needs to, especially among younger generations,” Morse said.

Morse Is doing his part to shine light on Seeger’s life, work and politics by hosting a a podcast called “There is a Season.”

Hannah Zara of Shelburne Falls is a young person who is very aware of Seeger’s influence and is a rising singer-songwriter herself. Zara is also new to the festival and will be singing new compositions and covering the Seeger classic “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”

“I grew up with Pete’s songs, both in the ‘Rise Up Singing’ songbook and in the song circles my parents brought me to,” Zara said. “His songs impacted my sense of responsibility as a songwriter — I don’t write for myself alone — a song can change someone’s mind. And when many minds are changed we can move mountains, or stop a war … Pete’s songs were songs of protest and social justice – they comforted some and brought discomfort to others. I would say this is also the case for the songs I write. They are always about something. I try to speak for the time we are in.”

And how would Seeger speak to the turbulent times we are in? The musicians ponder this question as they prepare this festival.

“If Pete were alive today, I think he would say to everybody, ‘Don’t forget the local effort.’ He wanted us to be a strong link in the chain. Another thing I think he’d say is, ‘Don’t forget the basic goodness of people,’” said Pirtle.

“It’s hard to know how he would respond to today’s issues,” saidd Morse. “But I feel that if we as a society, certainly as a nation, had listened more closely to what Seeger was telling us we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in today.”

The organizers welcome everyone and especially want children to attend so they can learn these beloved songs.

For this reason, they are holding the event in the afternoon and keeping it free.

Pete Fest is co-sponsored by the Discovery Center for Peacebuilding, founded by Pirtle in 1992, by Traprock Peace Center, and by the Interfaith Council of Franklin County.

If it’s not possible to attend in person on April 6, you can watch online by emailing yosl@ganeydn.com and putting PeteFestZoom in the subject line.

The Ashfield Congregational Church is at 429 Main Street. It is wheelchair accessible through the front door.