By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News
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“HOOTENANNY FOR PETE” . . . Saturday, 2 p.m., Olympic Unitarian Universalist Hall, 73 Howe Road between Port Angeles and Sequim.
Two more celebrations of Seeger's life and music are coming next week. 'First comes the open-mic night at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 26, at the Nourish restaurant, 1345 S. Sequim Ave., in Sequim, where all are welcome and there's no cover charge.
For details about the weekly open mic, phone Nourish at 360-797-1480.
Next comes “Turn, Turn, Turn: A Tribute to Pete Seeger” at the Key City Playhouse next Friday, Feb. 28. The 7:30 p.m. event will bring together singers Daniel Deardorff, Judith-Kate Friedman, Kat Eggleston, Aimee Ringle, Laurence Cole and others with host Marcia Perlstein, with admission at $15. For information, see www.KeyCityPublicTheatre.org or phone 360-379-0195.
So said the Port Angeles Evening News of Nov. 2, 1957, heralding an event that would thrill Tim Wheeler and his family.
That November was the first time Seeger, the now-legendary singer and activist, came to stay at their house in Sequim.
Seeger would return twice more, and Wheeler and his siblings would stay in touch with the artist, exchanging Christmas cards with him for years to come.
Seeger died last month at age 94, but his music and spirit aren't about to disappear.
This afternoon (Saturday, Feb. 22), Wheeler, 74, his brother Steve Vause and their sister Marion “Honeybee” Burns will host a “Hootenanny for Pete,” a free party and sing-along for people of all ages.
Songs such as “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” will fill the Olympic Unitarian Universalist Hall, 73 Howe Road between Port Angeles and Sequim, with local musicians including Howly Slim, Sandy Summers, Steve Koehler and Ron Munro leading the way.
Doors will open at 1 p.m., singing will start at 2 p.m. and song sheets will be provided along with coffee, juice, cookies and cake.
“We're going to sing songs people know, interspersed with some they might not be familiar with,” Wheeler promised.
That means “This Land Is Your Land,” the Woody Guthrie song Seeger loved to do, as well as “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” and “Roll On, Columbia,” also by Guthrie.
“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” a civil rights anthem, “Union Maid” from the labor movement and “Wimoweh,” a South African song made famous by Seeger's group the Weavers, are on the agenda too.
“There is nothing so uplifting as raising your voice,” said Burns, who was 10 years old when Seeger came out to the Olympic Peninsula.
Then, the second time he did a concert here, Burns was sick with chicken pox and couldn't go.
So Seeger, who was staying at their home on Sequim's Bell Hill, gave a house concert for her the day after the one he did at the old Lincoln School in Port Angeles.
Seeger's public concerts in Port Angeles in 1957, '58 and '59 — including one with the famous blues harmonica player Sonny Terry — didn't draw large crowds.
Wheeler estimates there were 50 to 75 people in attendance.
This was the Cold War, and the folk singer, who allied himself with labor and civil rights activists, had been blacklisted following his August 1955 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Refusing to answer questions about his association with members of the Communist Party, Seeger said:
“I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours . . . that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.”
Seeger was later found in contempt of Congress.
Concerts were canceled across the country, but the singer toured anyway, playing at high schools and colleges in places like Port Angeles and Portland, Ore.
Vause, Tim Wheeler's older brother, had seen Seeger at Portland's Reed College back in April 1954, where another Reedie, Karen Renne, declared that Seeger and his banjo had changed her life.
Vause was a high school senior at the time, checking out the college he would later attend.
Wheeler, Vause and Burns are also remembering their sister Susan Elizabeth, who first invited Seeger to Port Angeles.
Back in the mid-1950s, her friends had mad crushes on Elvis Presley, but Susan Wheeler was crazy for Pete.
She was 15 when she wrote him a fan letter and invitation to this far corner of the country — which he accepted.
Susan died of cancer eight years ago. But she lived to see her folk singer hero come back to the Northwest in 1994 — to give a benefit concert for a cause dear to her heart.
Susan was in Portland, working with farmworkers at the Oregon Law Center, when she received a letter from Seeger. He was writing to the people who had helped him during the blacklist years, Burns recalled.
The singer was offering to give benefit concerts, so Susan took him up on it. Seeger came to Oregon and raised some $34,000 for the farmworkers' union, Burns said.
The Wheeler family, like Seeger, is respectful of farmers.
“We've done a bit of farming ourselves,” Wheeler added.
His parents, Don and Mary Wheeler, ran a dairy during the 1950s; now Nash's Organic Produce grows crops on the Wheeler Farm.
Workers' rights, the environment, civil rights, ending the Vietnam War, Occupy Wall Street — Seeger allied himself with the grass-roots struggles of the 20th and 21st centuries.
One generation into the next, he united people in song.
“His great genius,” said Wheeler, “was not that he was the greatest singer in the world, but he got other people to sing.
“He knew the power of song as a force for change. And you could just feel it, hearing a crowd of people singing together, that we can change the world, make it a better place.
“He inspired the people. And they inspired him.”