PETE SEEGER is this frailly skinny, fidgety, preoccupied, intense, even plaintive guy with his glasses held on by an elastic strap, and blue eyes that look at you as if he's surprised you're there.
He is 61.
He seems very alone.
After all these years of singing folk songs about brotherhood and injustice and the common man, there's nothing . . . well, folksy about him. He looks more like Don Quixote than, say, John Henry the steel-drivin' man -- whose song he learned at the age of 12 from social-realist painter Thomas Hart Benton, a friend of his father.
He is standing, just now, in the passport office on K Street. He is waiting for his wife, Toshi, to finish filling out the forms he needs to get his passport.
"In the old days we wouldn't have bothered," Toshi says. "In the McCarthy era they would have asked Pete to sign a loyalty oath, and he wouldn't sign, of course."
He is a founder, reviver and number-one survivor, after all these years, of the American folk-music movement, starting in the late '30s with folksingers such as Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives and Leadbelly and going up to last Wednesday night, when he and Arlo Buthrie (Woody's son) sold out all the seats at Wolf Trap.
Nowadays, of course, he's considerably more comfortable about saying: "I'm a communist," though it's hard to tell whether it's wit or wariness that keeps him from answering it's with a big C or a little one.
"Capitalize all the letters," he says.
He also is a loper from wall to wall of wherever he is, studying photographs, maps, instructions, whatever's there to be learned from, which is, just now, a picture of terraced hillsides in the Philippines.
"Look at those walls on that hillside," he says. "Robert Frost said: 'Something there is that does not love a wall,' but we need walls, they can serve to equalize, like the tariff and trade walls that keep all the money in the world from going to New York." a
He bangs his fists against his hips while he stares, and rummages for a truth.
"Height?" says Toshi, working over the forms.
"Six-feet-one," Seeger says.
"It says 6-feet-1 1/2 on your old passport," says Toshi, almost -- but not quite -- as if she hadn't noticed it before she spoke. They've been married 37 years. She plays martyred helpmeet to his absent-minded professor, hardworking housewife to his Bohemian, gadfly to his earnestness, apologist for his remoteness.
"Yess, you los a quarter of an inch of height every 10 years after you're 40," says Seeger, who is an almanac of random facts: There's 30 times more fresh water underground than in lakes and rivers: if the Sierras were as high as a relief man shows them, satellites would hit them.
"Weight?" says Toshi.
"Oh, 150," Seeger says, adding: "The doctor put me on the Pritkin diet to get my cholesterol levels down."
"You like cake and ice cream, right?" Toshi scolds with a little smile.
"Yeah," Seeger confesses. He grabs a pen and doodles on scrap paper.
"He's a cake-a-holic," Toshi says.
"I have to say I don't like salad as much as when I could put salt and oil on it," Seeger says sadly.
"sign here," Toshi says, pushing forms in front of him. Even after 37 years, three children and two grandchildren, Seeger appears to be the object of her infinite scrutiny and amusement.
"Oh! Signature of applicant," he says.
Toshi picks up the signed forms to take them to the counter.
"You can sit and talk," she tells him.
Talk: "My father said that if the human race fails to survive it will be because of the linguicentric predicament -- relying too much on words. He started out in life as an aesthetic snob but he changed. He said there's no indication that an accumulation of knowledge is all to the good."
The irony is that the elder Seeger, Charles, was an ethnomusicologist at the New School and UCLA. Pete Seeger's uncle, Alan Seeger, wrote the famous World War I poem, "I Have a Rendezvous With Death." His mother taught at Juilliard after a concert violin career. wSeeger comes from an old New England family of "doctors and lawyers," he says, and himself went to a prep school -- he spent almost all of his youth in boarding schools after his parents separated when he was eight. And then Harvard.
He left Harvard in his sophomore year to join the left-wing intellectuals' uneasy courting dance in front of the American working class.
By the late '30s, the dance had already been done to the tune of workers' choruses, whom everyone but the workers listened to. The search for a simple and authentic music led Seeger and fellow leftists toward folk music.
No matter that they wrote huge amounts of it themselves in Greenwich Village. It expressed the brightest hope of the American left, back then: That the American working man was a nobel as their idealization of him denim-clad, work-boot shod and full o sumple wisdom (no linguicentric predicament); face lifted and sleeves rolled up, ready to build the New Tomorrow.
Which, after all these years, is 1980. And the idealization, of course, is Pete Seeger himself, along with the myriad college kids who have followed him in politics, dress and music.
He helped invent both the word and the concept of "hootenanny." He wrote or co-wrote. "If I Had a Hammer," and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." He sang to autoworkers as one of the Almanac Singers, a political activist group of the early '40s.He sang on the hit parade in the late '40s as part of the Weavers. He has made 80 records, and written books and pamphlets on folk music. He has become a totem and a hero to the middle-class kids and old radicals who followed him from ban-the-bomb protests in the '50s to Vietnam protests in the '60s to sailing and singing for ecology on the good sloop Clearwater in the '70s, to the no-nuke demonstration on the Mall last spring.
The working class he hoped for has yet to appear.
He'll say that after all these years: "I suppose my biggest disappointment is that the American labor movement decided to play along with the Cold War and the establishment rather than keeping what I'd considered a class-conscious world view -- the strugle for peace, against racism, sexism, all those things."
But just now, Toshi is returing from the passport counter, announcing brightly: "This government is wonderful. The passports will be ready tomorrow at 12:30."
Back in the old days he wouldn't have gotten it, he says. He was redbaited for decades. In 1949, along with Paul Robeson, he was attacked in Peekskill, N.Y. at a concert picketed by the American Legion.
He was convicted of contempt of Congress in 1955 for refusing to answer questions about Communist affiliations. It took him seven years and $15,000 in legal fees to get the conviction overturned. In 1963 the Fire and Police Research Association of Los Angeles warned before a Seeger appearance that folk music and youth gatherings were being used to "brainwash and subvert . . . vast segments of young peoples' groups.
"It's been two years since the last trouble," he says, walking out of the Iowa and they had to clear the theater."
And, he points out, he was blacklisted throughtout the '50s and most of the '60s from network television. "I'm still not on it, very much."
Toshi, always ready to pep-talk him, if she isn't teasing him, says, as if they'd never discussed it before: "My own personal feeling, Peter, is that you'd be out of place on television. You don't watch the talk shows so you Don't know, but they're very superficial and I think you'd be out of place."
Of course, Seeger himself is the first to admit that he is a "sloppy" performer, and he recalls his mother, in her old age, scolding him: "You're sharp! You're flat!" On television, with his head canted back, his eyes blinking as if he's thinking of something else, he can seem sanctimonious and humorless. His forte is leading other people in song. He truly seems to want to hear the crowd more than himself.
The passport application behind them, the Seegers are driving to a seafood restaurant in Georgetown: driving in their '73 '73 Saab with 132,000 miles on it. Or rather, Toshi is driving while Pete talks about how solar energy is going to involve everybody in America.
"The next 20 years, everybody'll be up on the roof tinkering," he says.
"Everybody but you," Toshi says.
"That's right," Seeger says. "I'll sing about it and everyone else will do it."
"All talk," Toshi says. "That's all you are. You won't even clean the gutters. How many years has it been since you cleaned the gutters?"
"I don't know," says Seeger.
At the restaurant, a place with old waiters and dark wooden booths, Toshi keeps it up, this teasing.
"I don't think he's egotistical," she says. "I'd say he's self-centered."
"Let's say I like to see things done right," he says with the small, sly smile of a little boy caught with his hands in the cookie jar.
"Sure," Toshi says. "You like to wsh the dishes right -- about once a year. You like to sweep the floor right once very five years."
Toshi is three years younger than Pete. She met him when he was 19, she says. It was back when "he was trying to get rid of his old-fashioned Harvard accent and talk like Woody Guthrie."
She smiles. He squirms.
"I was a loner all my life," Seeger says. "I used to play by myself, read books by myself. My two older brothers were much older, and my stepbrother and sister were younger. I'd play music by myself to but it came to take a useful social role. At parties, I could play the piano so everyone else could sing. I'm not lonely. I like being by myself. When somebody comes along and interrupts me, I say: 'Just when I finally found somebody worth talking to.'"
Toshi is used to dealing with exotic family lives. Her father was the son of a Japanese whom the emperor sent to Paris in the 1860s to study Western culture. He got radicalized by communards, and on his return, caused enough stir that eventually his son -- Toshi's father -- was banished. The son ended up in America.He married a Virginia girl.
Toshi was raised in and around Washington, where she acquired the taste for seafood that brought them to this restaurant.
A lunch of of it finished, she says: "I'm going windowshopping, I don't want to listen to him anymore. I have to do it all the time."
She pauses, then adds: "I tease him a lot. It probably sounds nasty."
Her explanation seems to anguish him with either guilt or gratitude, it's hard to tell which as he leans over and kisses her, then touches her shoulder. His hand falls away as she stands.
"I'm going shopping," she says, pointing out again: "I've heard it all before."
When she is gone, Seeger leans across the table to talk. His eyes suddenly seem to open and open until it feel like he hasn't made any eye contact before.
"Part of living with the machine age is learning to assert yourself . . . to add something to canned food, to change things to the way you want them. Woody Guthrie was always changing things, he'd change songs to fit whatever he needed."
The thought is interrupted, ironically enough, by the alarm on his digital watch going off. He fumbles with a certain desperation till he finds the button that shuts it off.
"The problem is, how can we have a high standard of living without technology," he says, listing the consequent evils he sees: an elite, a non-elite lower class, then "demoralization, alienation, vandalism and terrorism you see in every industrial country."
He is fighting the experts, he says, and even the lessons of history: "The world is full of people who have learned the lessons of history."
But then, aren't technology and history two of the cornerstone of the Marxism which created the left-wing movement he's fought for all his life? The commism with either a big C or a little one?
"Communism," he says, "means no rich and no poor. You're against racism and sexism and foolish national rivalries. That's what it comes down to."
But doesn't he get frustrated after 40 years of The Struggle?
"Sure," he says. "But I see successes everywhere I go. Occasionally we win victories. I consider the biggest American victory in the 20th century to be our getting out of Vietnam. In our hometown, Beacon, N.Y., we have a waterfront park because the Clearwater would come in there every year and we'd sing and serve people soup."
Sing: he begins to mention songs to illustrate his points -- "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel," This Land Is Your Land." He even sings a few bars in his earnest baritone.
Since there's a newspaperman present, and unions are a topic of conversation he recalls an old song written by a member of the Newspaper Guild, "Newspapermen Are Such Interesting People," which he sings, verse after verse, a 61-year-old man singing in this Georgetown restaurant with all the absent-minded brio of a schoolboy.
After all these years he's not ashamed to sing anywhere, anytime, for anyone, even a solitary reporter.
It's a brashness he was not bred to have, and it's a naivete he should have shed, but it makes him charming.
He doesn't even know he has an audience.
Behind him, a woman is shaking her head and smiling with astonishment.
When he finishes she says: "You've meant so much to me all my life. My parents took me to see you way back in the early '50s when you were blackisted, and now I'm sitting next to you in a restaurant."
He thanks her, in a near mumble. He seems embarrassed.
Toshi returns, boasting of bargains she found on blouses.
The bill is paid, all rise to leave.
"C'mon, we have to buy you some jeans," she says, leading him onto the Georgetown sidewalk.
Buying Pete Seeger's official proletarian, gift-to-be-simple jeans for him.
After all these years.