Friday, October 7, 2011

Off the Beaten Track: A Moment in Time - Meeting Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger (l) and Rik Palieri (r) in 1980
Photo by Bob Yahn
Our guest today is Rik Palieri, a singer-songwriter based in Hinesburg, Vermont, who performs both original and traditional songs on a variety of instruments, including the banjo, guitar, mouth bow, Native American flute, and Polish bagpipes. Rik is author of the book, The Road Is My Mistress: Tales of a Roustabout Songster, and producer of The Song Writer’s Notebook, a TV show that is now archived in the new Rik Palieri Collection in The Library of Congress. Rik has eight CDs and was recently featured on the Grammy-nominated Singing Through The Hard Times: a tribute to Utah Phillips. More about Rik Palieri can be found at

Did you ever experience one moment that changed your life?

For me, that moment came in the mid-1970s, back when I had dreams of becoming a banjo player and folk performer. Yes, while most kids my age were having rock & roll fantasies, I was trying to plunk out a few old folk songs on my long-neck banjo. I had been inspired by activist, songwriter, and beloved performer Pete Seeger. Pete’s life story of rambling around the country by freight train and thumb, learning and sharing music with everyone he met, not only excited but inspired me. After seeing Pete live at a college show, I felt a bright light burn inside me and sensed that it would somehow be my destiny to carry on in his spirit. At that time, this notion seemed ridiculous, as I was just fifteen and a mere beginner on my instrument. Pete was only known to me by listening to his recordings, seeing him at his concerts, and sharing a few backstage handshakes. But then, just a few years later, my magical moment came.

I had read that Pete Seeger was going to give a free evening concert in Central Park with Arlo Guthrie. I marked that day on my calendar and waited for the big day to arrive. Little did I know that, earlier that same day, my mother would take my two young sisters to the park to visit a few museums. After finishing their museum tour, they all went over to Central Park for a picnic and to play with the other children.

As they were setting down their blankets, a huge crowd gathered. Curious, my mother asked one of the young girls sitting nearby what was going on. The girl replied that there was a free concert with Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. When my sister, Lisa, heard that Pete was playing, she remembered that I also planned to be at this show and, for some strange reason, she thought that I would be performing too. My sisters told my mother they wanted to go look for me and headed for the stage area.

They were both only tiny tots at the time, about nine and six years old, so when they met one of the stage hands and told him they were looking for their brother, who was a friend of Pete Seeger, the stage hand brought them to the trailer where Pete and his wife, Toshi, were preparing for the evening show.

Lisa remembers walking into the trailer. “It was so strange. We were only two little girls and did not realize where we were, but as soon as the door opened, I recognized the big tall fellow with a gray bushy beard, holding a banjo. I knew it was none other than Pete Seeger.” After a few moments of stunned silence, Lisa blurted out, “I know you. You're Pete Seeger.”

Pete replied, “Where do you know me from?”

Lisa said, “From watching Sesame Street. Do you know if my brother is here?”

Pete, a little perplexed, asked, “Your brother?”

Lisa continued, “My brother is a big fan of yours, and he plays the banjo too. And he is really good. I thought he said he was coming to see your show. Is he here?” Lisa went on about her brother till Pete asked, “Who is he?”

Lisa said, “His name is Rik Palieri and, you know, he has some of your records too.”

Pete laughed. “No, he is not here.” Then he asked his wife, Toshi, to make the girls some sandwiches, gave them water, then sent them back out to play.

My sisters left the trailer and told my mother what had happened. My mother really did not believe them but said, “That's nice.”

A few hours later, I arrived with my girlfriend and sat down to enjoy the show. That night at the concert, Pete said, “Tomorrow I will be performing at a riverfront festival in Hoboken, New Jersey, to benefit the Clearwater. Everyone’s invited.” (The Sloop Clearwater is the environmental sailboat that Pete helped build in 1969.)

As Hoboken was just a stone’s throw away from my parents’ house, I knew I had to go.

The next morning at breakfast, before I left for the concert, my sister told me, I met Pete Seeger yesterday.”

I looked at her like she was crazy.

“He was filing his nails,” she snapped back.

Unaware of my sister’s little promotional campaign, I just shook my head and walked out the door with my banjo slung over my back. When I arrived, a few musicians had already begun playing together in a little circle, so I pulled out my banjo and joined right in. We played for while and then some one called out, Hey Pete's here!”

First concert with Pete in Hoboken
Pete was dressed in a bright yellow t-shirt and a black Greek fisherman's cap. He joined our circle, unzipped his leather guitar case and took out his big 12-string guitar, and played along. After a few songs he introduced himself then asked us about ourselves.

When he came to me he said, “And who are you?”

“Hi, I'm Rik Palieri,” I managed to stammer.

Pete looked at me, cocked his head, and said, “You know Rik, I met your sisters yesterday, and they told me you are a good banjo player. Why don't you come up on stage with me, and we'll sing a few songs together with the rest of the group?”

I stood in shock, thinking: You met my sisters? You want me to join you on stage?

Pete smiled and welcomed me up on the high waterfront stage.

Within a week, my life changed. A photographer from the Asbury Park Press snapped a photo of me and Pete on stage, a photo that appeared in the paper’s next edition, and now the reporter wanted a follow-up story. Later, Pete himself called me on the phone, asking me to help him put on a concert and start building a chapter of the Clearwater in my community.

As the years passed, Pete became my mentor, sending me letters, giving me advice, and helping me get involved in concerts, festivals, recordings, and books. He also appeared as a guest on my cable TV show, “The Song Writer’s Notebook.” Whenever Pete thought something I was doing was worthwhile, he was always there with his warm smile and helping hand.

Sometimes I wonder if I hadn’t gone to that little festival in Hoboken, would my life still  be the same? But my sister Lisa takes a whole different view. “Remember, Rik, it was me who introduced you to Pete Seeger. You still owe me, big time!”

Here is a short video clip of me and Pete singing "John Henry." It's from the Song Writer's Notebook:


  1. That is just the coolest story EVER, Rik! And I loved the video. And I love your little sister, Lisa. I hope you took good care of her. :)

    So fabulous -- thanks for sharing this with all of us. And woohoo, congrats on the Grammy!

  2. Okay, I meant the Grammy nomination, but same thing, right? ;)

  3. What a great story. :) I remember hearing Pete going back to probably 1950 (and most recently last year at a political event), and to this day I start to grin whenever I hear a 5-string banjo. This week I had the pleasure of adding banjo tracks to my once-in-a-lifetime singer/songwriter project, a CD with my songs and great backup by much, much better musicians than I. I'd say Pete's voice, his playing, his message, and the way he can repeat every line of a chorus after he sings it so the audience can sing along are part of the American collective unconscious.

  4. This is such a wonderful story! I couldn't stop smiling as I read about the twists and turns on your journey. I love serendipity.

  5. Hi This is Rik Palieri, thanks for writing in.
    Today I am off to join friends old & new back on the Sloop Clearwater for the pumpkin sail. It has been years since I have done a sail on the boat so I am very excited! Yes this story of how Pete Seeger came into my life was the beginning of my great adventure. Reading it over I am still amazed how this one event changed my life.

  6. Great story, Rik!
    I was also priviledged to play with Pete - and Arlo - on stage in Denmark, at the mighty Tonder Festival some years ago ... even managed to play along on that old 12-string guitar of Pete's ... memorable moments!

  7. Rik, thanks for sharing this great story with us! It is so true that a moment in time can change your life. Thing is, you never know which moment it is until later, so there's no appreciating it at the time. :)

  8. Rik I've heard you tell stories about Pete Seeger before. So great to read the whole story. I grew up listening to Pete Seeger in our home. Watching the clip with the two of you singing just warmed my heart. Till we meet again....Jodee

  9. We put a link to this to our Broad Old River2 Hudson River Sloop Singers blog. Pete is one amazing human. How many souls has he nudged along to do a part of the work?

    There are more sloop singer stories on our blog. There's a link to the Clearwater store to get the CD, with Rik's story explaining sloop singers and Clearwater. Lyrics, liner notes and a link to the Songwriters notebook from the CD concert.

  10. Pete Seeger is just an amazing guy! Check this out: