Curatorial Director Howard Kramer shares insight on his conversation with Seeger and why he decided to put his infamous banjo head in the Museum instead of on auction.
On Monday, my co-worker in the membership department, Linda Worden, called me to say that she had Pete Seeger on the line and he wanted to speak with me about donating something. I could hear the excitement in her voice about having a conversation with a legend like Pete. It’s a wonderful perk of working at the Rock Hall. She transferred the call to me and there was Pete, spry and warm as usual. Last fall he celebrated his 90th birthday with a sold-out all-star show in his honor at Madison Square Garden. He has been a part of our lives for so long you could easily take for granted his contributions to music and society. Pete has been a leading force in American folk music long before there was any sort of folk revival. His tireless work for social justice and environmental causes is virtually unparalleled.
Back to the phone call. Pete explains to me that he was trying to raise money for the Haitian earthquake relief effort. He had taken the decorated skin that had been on his long-neck banjo for nearly 40 years and put it up on eBay. As it began to accumulate higher and higher bids, Pete and his wife Toshi felt the need to reconsider how they were going about this. If it was worth so much money, it shouldn’t be in someone’s home. It should be in a museum. (For the record, Pete had loaned the long-neck banjo with this particular head to the Rock Hall many years back. I had the pleasure of hand-delivering the banjo to Pete at his home in the Hudson River Valley when he wanted it returned.) Pete and I discussed how to ship the item and the next day it arrived at the Museum. I opened the package and there it was complete with Pete’s motto hand-written on the skin – This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender.