Pete Seeger chuckles at the unruly flames burning in the fireplace of the Beacon Sloop Club on this frigid afternoon. Though he’s just a few months shy of turning 90 years old, he immediately grabs the tongs and poker, and gets to work moving logs until there’s a steady, warming blaze.
Climate control issues handled, Seeger strides across the cement floor to give a warm embrace to Joan Baez, age 68, and immediately asks after the health of her 95-year-old mother. To see these two towering icons of folk music and social activism together — both just back from Washington, DC, where they participated in the events around the Presidential Inauguration — is to witness some of American music’s greatest history. Rolling Stone has a stunning photo of the pair as they share stories from their pasts in the next issue, hitting newsstands Wednesday.
It’s been almost six decades since Seeger and his pioneering folk group, the Weavers, had a Number One hit with their version of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene,” and more than 45 years since Joan Baez — who had recently appeared on the cover of Time magazine representing the burgeoning folk revival — led the crowd at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington in singing “We Shall Overcome.” But at this moment, their lifelong commitment to social justice and the power of music seems as modern as anything by Lil Wayne.
The Sloop Club itself is a perfect manifestation of Seeger’s unwavering ideals. A ramshackle, one-room former diner on the banks of the Hudson River in upstate New York, just down the hill from the singer’s home, it was founded 40 years ago as a gathering place to help clean up the Hudson and spread a message of environmentalism. “The first month I called a meeting, and three people came,” he says. “So the next month, I said it was a potluck supper, and 30 people came — and we’ve been meeting every month since!”
For a chilly few hours, Seeger and Baez trade songs and stories. Baez recalls how she was first truly inspired to sing when her aunt took her to a Seeger concert in the mid-Fifties. “It’s like they gave me a vaccine, and it worked,” she says. They quietly harmonize on “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” in German, and Seeger quickly assumes his lifelong role as a teacher, recommending books and teaching songs to the dozen or so people in the room. Baez expresses her admiration for Seeger’s memory, and he chuckles and says, “I can remember things from long ago, but I can’t tell you what I had for breakfast.”
But mostly, they return to the events of earlier in the week, and the emotion they still feel about Barack Obama’s election. It’s hard to imagine what that day must really mean to these freedom fighters — the notion of Pete Seeger being embraced by the President of the United States would have been inconceivable decades ago, when he was blacklisted for his political views.
They reminisce about the civil rights movement, about singing with Woody Guthrie and Odetta, about the effect that the arts and technology have had on the struggle for human rights. “There have been a lot of little miracles,” says Seeger.
“Yes,” says Baez, “but didn’t we just have a big one?”