Toshi Seeger, wife and muse of Pete Seeger, dies at 91


Folk singer Pete Seeger, center, and his wife, Toshi, right, sit during a recording session with Mississippi John Hurt. (Harry Naltchayan/THE WASHINGTON POST)
July 11, 2013

They were a match since they met at a square dance in 1938.

Pete Seeger, later the composer of “Turn Turn Turn” and “If I Had a Hammer,” was a tall, gangly troubadour; Toshi-Aline Ohta was spirited, opinioned and 17, three years his junior. She said she would help him organize a collection of labor songs. “Now we know what volunteering can lead to,’’ she once quipped.

Her seven-decade union with Pete Seeger would offer joy but little respite. He would achieve fame as a folk singer in the late 1940s and early 1950s but be blacklisted for his activism. Starting in the 1960s, he would reemerge as one of the greatest folk singers and protest icons of the century, winning some of the highest honors the country and the music industry can bestow.

Toshi Seeger, a filmmaker and music-festival pioneer who died Tuesday at 91, would spend years raising three children in a log cabin without electricity or running water, often by herself while her husband taught banjo or played gigs at faraway schools for months at a time.

His outspoken equal, she pushed hard for civil rights, against nuclear power and for cleaning the Hudson River, which ran near their home in Beacon, N.Y. And she would lead the way for an annual festival for their environmental group, said their grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger.

“Without my grandmother, there would be no Pete Seeger the way people understand it,” Rodriguez-Seeger told the Associated Press.

“Without Toshi, Pete would never have had the foundation and freedom to do the work that made him so legendary,” according to Sing Out, the magazine the Seegers founded more than six decades ago.

Her husband attributed her steeliness to her upbringing and heritage.

As Ms. Seeger once recalled, her Japanese grandfather witnessed the Paris Commune of 1871, “came home a radical” and was arrested for helping raise money for Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen. A court ordered his banishment.

His teenage son volunteered to serve the sentence instead and spent years working aboard a British merchant vessel. He married an American from a prominent Virginia family, and they ran off when she became pregnant. Toshi was born in Munich.

The new family later moved back to New York, where her mother reportedly lied about Toshi’s ancestry to circumvent racially exclusionary laws prohibiting Asians from entering. Her father found work as a caretaker for the Henry Street Settlement house.

They later settled in Woodstock, N.Y., surviving off what they could grow and raise. They remained active in left-wing causes, including raising money for anti-fascist efforts in Spain, and sent their daughter to progressive schools such as the Little Red School House in Greenwich Village and the High School of Music & Art.

Five years after they first met, Toshi and Pete Seeger married, days before he headed overseas in 1943 for Army service during World War II.

Seeger returned and achieved success with the folk group the Weavers, and then punishment from the House Committee on Un-American Activities for refusing to name names regarding leftist political activity.

“It’s a family joke that Toshi has always said, ‘If only Peter had chased women instead of chasing causes, I’d have an excuse to leave him,’ ” Pete Seeger told The Washington Post in 2008.

Throughout the years, Ms. Seeger was a grounding force for her in-demand husband. Once, she bellowed near the phone when he was on a call to Washington, “Tell Mr. EPA that you have housework to do.”

Seeger joined in his wife’s projects, such as a film recording inmates, “Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison.” The couple had been shooting film for years, since they took the family on a round-the-world trip in the 1950s during which they interviewed and recorded folk musicians.

Toshi Seeger created the annual Clearwater Festival in Westchester County, said Jeff Rumpf, executive director of the environmental group that sponsors it. “She pushed for the festival being a cause, not a concert,” Rumpf told the Poughkeepsie Journal. “The most important thing for her was making sure the music represented as much diversity as possible. She was always looking for people to open their minds.”

Besides her husband, now 94, survivors include three children, Danny, Mika and Tinya; and several grandchildren.

Ms. Seeger had been in failing health, her husband said in an audio clip released by his publisher in March. No cause of death was reported.

“Now Toshi can’t walk well, and I tell her, ‘What you’ve done in your life, not just raising three wonderful young people, but manag[ing] to keep on going,’ ” Seeger said. “Maybe that’s where I should leave, remembering the extraordinary person I was lucky to hitch on with.”

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