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Pete Seeger’s Kootenay ties

Legendary American folk singer Pete Seeger, who died Monday at 94, had several West Kootenay connections.
ABOVE: Pete Seeger

Legendary American folk singer Pete Seeger, who died Monday at 94, had several West Kootenay connections.

While it’s unclear if the guitar and banjo-picking social activist ever actually visited this area, a persistent rumour has him performing at some sort of labour benefit in Trail in the 1940s. One woman claimed to have recorded the concert, but the tape has not been unearthed.

Seeger did record a 1962 song by Malvina Reynolds called Do as the Doukhobors Do, although it went unreleased until a 2000 boxset called The Best of Broadside.

In the 1950s, he belonged to a popular New York folk quartet called The Weavers. One of his bandmates, Ronnie Gilbert, lived in the Slocan Valley in the 1970s and ‘80s, where she was a founding member of Theatre Energy. (She returned to the area in 2006 for the Our Way Home reunion in Brilliant.)

Seeger was also friends with the Bockners of Argenta.

“My Dad went to the University of Toronto and saw Seeger in a concert there around 1947 and just loved him,” Rick Bockner recalls from his home on Cortes Island, where he is a musician and woodworker. “Their politics were very similar.”

Rick’s parents, Lou and Phyllis, were Canadians but lived in St. Louis, where Lou was a social worker. He ran a children’s summer camp in the Ozarks that used Seeger’s music and helped organize concerts while Seeger was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

Seeger became part of the Bockner home whenever he passed through St. Louis and was one of Rick’s first musical influences, providing him with his first informal guitar lessons at age five. Later, when Rick wanted to buy a 12-string guitar, Seeger gave him advice. “We grew up on his music,” Rick says. “He was a huge influence on our household.”

Rick’s sister Deb, who lives in Argenta, recalls Seeger “laying down for a nap in the back bedroom before a concert. We put on a record of his. I remember him coming out very angry because we were playing a record he didn’t like!”

Younger brother Peter, who lives in Nelson, was named after Seeger.

Lou Bockner died when his children were young, but the family stayed in touch with Seeger, who Rick last saw in an elevator in 1992.

“I had a chance to tell him how much he meant to me musically and he asked how my mom was doing — she kept in touch with him too, and we’d get a card every year. He was quiet for a minute and said ‘Seems like another lifetime.’ For both of us, it had been a long time.”

(Bockner’s mother was better known in Argenta as Phyllis Margolin, a noted painter.)

Bockner, who lived in this area off and on between 1961 and 1982, is planning a tribute show to Seeger on Cortes Island’s community radio station.

He said Seeger had his finger on every social movement in North America since the 1930s, from civil rights to environmentalism.

“For every major political downer of the last 50 years, there’s been a Pete Seeger song to address it. I’m very grateful to him. He was a real mentor of mine.”