Aunque todo lo dicho no sea cierto, todo lo cierto no está dicho.

While not all that is said is true, not all that is truth is told.

How I Came to Know Old Pete, and the Difference Between the US and Chilean New Song

Grupo Raiz  & Pete Seeger. Nicaragua. 1984.

Grupo Raiz & Pete Seeger. Nicaragua. 1984.

 By Fernando Andrés Torres. LatinOpen.- (Translation by Pilar Alvarez)

 I must first clarify that my use of the term “old” is related to the word that we Chilean political prisoners used with each other to convey that warmth that lies behind respect or affection, or even to replace a word that is too hard to express behind bars: love. While being locked up I understood for the first time that this word, like a sacred, familiar and intimate keepsake, reminded us of our parents and brought with it the sweet memory of long gone caresses and caring. The guards were not old, they were mere prison officers, or perhaps a few other angry epithets. We were the “old ones”. This nickname, with which all those who served sentences were baptized, was like a battle decoration earned by life blows; like a welcome, like a key that let you in to the circle of compañeros. The tenderness of the word never abandoned me. The Old ones, yes, we were all Old ones.

 Just like a paragraph, life has its periods and its commas. Sometimes we don’t appreciate the brevity of a comma, sometimes we don’t understand their meaning, or we even forget their importance. Like everyone, I’ve had commas of all kinds – and why not – of all sizes. They are pauses that invite us to reflect before the next sentence, the unexpected encounter, the fleeting or the decisive moment. One of those very important commas occurred when I met Old Pete Seeger in the Berkeley of 1982.

With his prodigious height, his clear eyes, and his fingers filled with guitar picks, Old Pete immediately started speaking to us of Víctor Jara, offering a perspective that only a seasoned folk artist would be able to give. On and off the stage, Old Pete was a skillful storyteller. He was at once, a simple, entertaining, and profound narrator. I instantly realized that by speaking of Víctor, he was extending his solidarity. Without directly saying it, he was offering us his generous and peaceful hand. Rafael Manríquez kept caressing his guitar while being totally absorbed by Pete’s words. I remember that his words showed tremendous candor, and also a hunger for our own stories. In spite of his advanced loss of hearing Old Pete was also an exceptional listener.

 At the Community Theater of Berkeley, on a benefit concert for La Peña Cultural Center, Old Pete recited the last poem written by Víctor Jara. Ellen Moore and Lichi Fuentes weeped next to me.

With Toshi, his life companion right by him, Old Pete took us in an intimate and wonderful journey of the Protest Song Movement of the United States, that for some unknown reason was never called The New Song, in spite of repeated efforts to name it just that. I remember him saying that among the people of the US, many of these songs had never seen the light of day. The songs that had the labor movement as its origin, also had as their central aim the participation of the audience. It was a communal, collective, and utilitarian type of song. Old Pete made us sing his entire repertoire, because the refrains were made for that purpose: to be sung by the people. They are repetitive and easy to remember, like a cocoon with simple phrasing and rigorous rhyming and content esthetics.

 The New Chilean Song also shared these characteristics, but its long going development focused on musical virtuosity, almost theatrical performances, and formal musical arrangements. Of course, there are important exceptions, but the general traits of perfectionism espoused by its adepts distanced it from popular participation and demanded almost religious dedication by its listeners. Old Pete, however, would interrupt his own performances to teach the chorus to his audience. Contrary to the Chilean, the relationship between artist, stage and public, would be transformed into direct connection between artist and public.

 Some time later, I run into Old Pete and Toshi while participating with Grupo Raíz in the Festival of the New Latin American Song in Nicaragua, in1983. Right then and there, Old Pete took us by a beautiful lake, asked us to correct some texts in Spanish, and taught us a few songs that we later sung at the Festival. Further away Alí Primera watched us patiently while waiting to give Old Pete his latest recordings. Old Pete also told us some Sandinista stories; stories that the very guerrilla leaders kept sharing with him.

 With this touching humbleness, more noticeable than his height, and his stuttering Spanish, Old Pete won the hearts of Nicaraguans; he was a total success. From one side of the stage I looked at his worn out pants and his huge feet inside some tattered sandals that moved incessantly.

 The last time we run into Old Pete and Toshi was at the Festival of Political Song in East Berlin, Germany, in 1986. Together with Héctor Salgado, I accompanied my brother Osvaldo as a charanguista. We all shared the flight that started in Paris. When we arrived, a mob of journalists was waiting. Toshi grabbed my arm and told me “Don’t move from my side. I don’t want to walk alone”, then we went into the airport. Far away, in the middle of the crowd of journalists, I saw from the corner of my eye that Old Pete was gazing up to the sky, as he used to do when he wanted to answer a question or to start a new song.

Bank Robbers? On one of those cold mornings we were having breakfast at the hotel with musician Lucho Pradenas when Pete and Toshi approached our table laden with bags and guitars ready to leave for the airport. From out of a bag Toshi pulled a a bunch of money some of it dripping off her fingers and commanded us to accept it no matter what. We jokingly asked if they had robbed a bank. They knew that my compañera then Lichi remained in Berkeley pregnant bound. Toshi asked me to buy clothes and gifts for the baby who would be Valentina. the money was Berlin’s communist currency, with which Pete had been paid to for his presentations. Pete explained to us; that money was going to lose a lot of value if exchanged to capitalist currency. So they decided it was smarted to give it to their fellow musicians. With Hector and Osvaldo immediately we went into a kind of a communist shopping mall to buy gifts for everyone. We passed on the remaining money to the translator who helped us during our stay.

 Yesterday, January 27 of 2014, Old Pete left to meet up with his Toshi, the love of his entire life. They must be right next to each other right now.

 ###

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This entry was posted on February 3, 2014 by in ARTe and CULTURa, Chile, US and tagged , , .

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