The Record
4:04 pm
Thu July 11, 2013

Toshi Seeger, Wife Of Folk Singer Pete Seeger, Dies At 91

Originally published on Thu July 11, 2013 4:30 pm

Anyone who worked closely with Pete Seeger knew the legendary folk singer's wife. For seven decades, Toshi Seeger organized his festivals and handled his travel and correspondence. The social activist died Tuesday. She was 91.

Singer Judy Collins, who has known the family since the 1960s, says that while Pete kept an exhaustive schedule touring the world, Toshi worked just as hard behind the scenes.

"Toshi was fundamental to his life," Collins says. "And I think she enabled him to have kind of the worldwide presence ... she had every bit of a part in that."

Toshi, who also raised the couple's children, had a very dry sense of humor, says the musician Ruth Ungar. The daughter of fiddler Jay Ungar, Ruth has known the Seegers since she was a little girl. She says she remembers seeing an old New Yorker cartoon on their kitchen wall.

"It's a woman answering the phone and she's got a baby under one arm, or maybe two. And she's doing the dishes with one hand and mopping the floor with [her] foot," Ungar explains. "And the quote on the bottom says something like, 'I'm sorry, my husband can't come to the phone right now. He's out fighting for the rights of the oppressed.' "

Toshi's father was Japanese; her mother was American. She grew up in Woodstock, N.Y., and she and Pete eventually built a home in nearby Beacon.

In the 1960s, the couple collaborated with folklorist Bruce Jackson on the film Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison, which is now in the Library of Congress.

In 2006, Toshi told the American Folklife Center about their approach to making the film.

"In the Texas thing, I had no idea what was going to happen," she said. "So any of the framing or anything is on the spur of the moment."

Toshi Seeger's creative spontaneity also extended to music. At one point she rewrote the lyrics to one of Pete's most famous tunes: "Turn! Turn! Turn!"

"Way back in the year of 1954, when I thought of this melody, my wife and I had two little kids," Pete Seeger said during a performance of the tune last year at Symphony Space in New York. "One was age 6, the other was age 8. And my wife made up five verses for them."

Toshi Seeger died at home, just shy of her 70th wedding anniversary.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For seven decades, Toshi Seeger was the force behind her husband, folk singer Pete Seeger. She organized festivals, she handled his travel and correspondence, and she was also a social activist like her husband. Toshi Seeger died on Tuesday. She was 91. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this remembrance.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Anyone who worked closely with Pete Seeger knew Toshi. Singer Judy Collins has known the family since the 1960s. She says while Pete kept an exhaustive schedule touring the world, Toshi was working just as hard behind the scenes.

JUDY COLLINS: Toshi was fundamental to his life. And I think she enabled him to have the kind of worldwide presence that he has. She had every bit of a part in that.

BLAIR: She also raised their three children. Ruth Ungar, a musician and the daughter of fiddler Jay Ungar, has known the Seegers since she was a little girl. She says Toshi had a very dry sense of humor. She remembers seeing an old New Yorker cartoon on their kitchen wall.

RUTH UNGAR: It's a woman answering the phone and she's got baby under one arm - or maybe two - and she's doing the dishes with one hand and mopping the floor with her foot and all this at once. And the quote at the bottom says something like: I'm sorry my husband can't come to the phone right now. He's out fighting for the rights of the oppressed.

BLAIR: Toshi Seeger's father was Japanese. Her mother was American. She grew up in Woodstock, New York and she and Pete eventually built a home in nearby Beacon. In the 1960s, she and Pete collaborated on a film with folklorist Bruce Jackson. "Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison" is now in the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) Glory (unintelligible), glory...

BLAIR: In 2006, Toshi Seeger told the American Folklife Center about their approach to making the film.

TOSHI SEEGER: The Texas thing, I had no idea what was going to happen. So, any of the framing or anything is on the spur of the moment.

BLAIR: Toshi Seeger's creative spontaneity also extended to music. At one point, she rewrote the lyrics to one of Pete's most famous tunes.

PETE SEEGER: Way back in year of 1954, when I thought of this melody, my wife and I had two little kids. One was age four, six (unintelligible). And my wife made up five verses for them.

BLAIR: Pete Seeger performed Toshi's version of "Turn Turn Turn" last year at Symphony Space in New York.

SEEGER: (Singing) A time of work, a time for play, a time at night, a time for day, a time to sleep, a time to wake, but at night the candles (unintelligible). To everything, turn, turn, turn...

BLAIR: Toshi Seeger died at home just shy of her and Pete Seeger's 70th wedding anniversary. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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