Several people emailed me that Toshi-Aline Ohta Seeger had died at 91. She was Pete Seeger’s right hand for decades, his collaborator in writing songs, and his emphatic partner in progressive politics.
In fact, Toshi embodied Seeger’s treasured internationalism, having been born in Munich to an American mother and Japanese father. The family moved to the U.S., and the pair met and married during the war in New York. Sue Leonard recounts Toshi’s early history from an interview. Pete Seeger married a Red Diaper baby:
As a young child, Toshi lived in Woodstock in a small, narrow house where her family grew vegetables and kept chickens. No one, Toshi said, ate the chickens, just their eggs, because they were pets (unless her Uncle Al visited and they cooked one for his dinner). Later they moved back to New York City. Her parents, being left-wing activists (her father was a Communist and her mother worked for the women’s movement) sent Toshi to The Little Red Schoolhouse then onto the High School of Music and Art where she played piano and was a member of the first graduating class.
For decades, they lived together in a small house in Beacon, New York overlooking their beloved Hudson. Toshi kept Pete going, and she made films—her 1966 “Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison” is in the archives of the Library of Congress. Pete and Toshi co-founded the Clearwater Festival, and saw it through to glorious fruition. Toshi was the one who actually knew how to sail, and that helped the Clearwater get established.
In mid June, I spent a blessed day at the Clearwater Festival in Croton, New York, and reveled in a late set by the incomparable Mavis Staples. When I saw her being helped up the steps to the stage, I wasn’t sure she’d be able to perform, and indeed the first few songs were largely carried by other singers. But then Mavis opened her mouth and a glorious sound came out. She’s still got it, and how.
As I was watching, I felt one of the festival’s ubiquitous golf carts pulling up in front of me on a small hillock overlooking the stage, and there, right next to me, were Pete and Toshi Seeger, come to see the glory of Mavis Staples. I took the photo above with my phone.
What went through the minds of these two old campaigners watching Mavis Staples? Via the Staples Singers, their association goes back to the 1950s. Can you imagine the countless Mississippi Summer evenings, church basement sing-alongs, pass-the-hat political rallies, and union fundraisers they must have shared?