Toshi Seeger: In Memoriam

July 12, 2013

In Blog

Toshi Seeger, Wife of Folk-Singing Legend, Dies at 91

Published: July 11, 2013

Toshi Seeger, whose husband the folk singer Pete Seeger has credited for at least half his success — from helping to organize the first Newport Folk Festival to campaigning to clean the Hudson River — died on Tuesday at their home in Beacon, N.Y. She was 91.

Steve J. Sherman

Toshi and Pete Seeger in 1992. Ms. Seeger helped bring many of his ideas to fruition during their seven-decade marriage.

His family announced the death.

The music impresario George Wein recalled in an interview on Thursday that he and his wife, Joyce, had joined the Seegers in their log cabin overlooking the Hudson to plan the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959. He said that Mrs. Seeger suggested performers and helped come up with the idea that no musician, whether a star or an unknown, would be paid more than $50.

“Without Toshi, it couldn’t have happened,” Mr. Wein said.

Mr. Seeger, now 94, became famous for shaping modern folk music through prolific songwriting and peripatetic entertaining, and for his activism. He fought McCarthyism, marched beside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and led many environmental campaigns.

In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Seeger called his wife of almost 70 years “the brains of the family” and said it was she who figured out how to turn his artistic concepts into commercial successes.

“I’d get an idea and wouldn’t know how to make it work, and she’d figure out how to make it work,” he said.

In “How Can I Keep From Singing” (1981), a biography of Mr. Seeger, David King Dunaway wrote: “Because Toshi was a woman, and because she disliked spotlights, she never received her due. As Pete’s producer, she made sure he was in the right place at the right time in the right mood, and that he knew where to go next.

“When problems arose, she took the blame. At tax time, when her shy singer couldn’t face how much money he earned — or worse, how much he gave the government for war — Toshi would place a blank page over the return when Pete signed it.”

Mrs. Seeger helped produce thousands of her husband’s concerts. When he hosted “Rainbow Quest,” a television show devoted to folk music, in 1965 and 1966, she directed it — although her official credit was “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer.”

In 2007 she was the executive producer of the PBS documentary “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.” It won an Emmy.

In 1966 she joined with her husband to create an environmental charity, using a sloop called Clearwater as a rallying point. She played a crucial role in starting a music festival, known as the Great Hudson River Revival, to support these efforts. It attracts 15,000 visitors annually.

She even taught Mr. Seeger to sail. “She was the one who steered the boat; she had the chart, she kept off the rocks,” he said in a 2012 interview with Persimmon Tree magazine.

Mrs. Seeger also made folk-music films. One depicts prisoners in Texas chopping trees and singing.

Mrs. Seeger’s grandfather translated Marx into Japanese and was banished from Japan for leftist activity. Under Japanese law, a son could take a father’s place in exile, and Takashi Ohta, Toshi’s father, did so. He roamed the world and met Virginia Berry, an American. They married and ended up in Munich.

Toshi (TOE-shee) Aline Ohta was born there on July 1, 1922. She grew up in Greenwich Village and Woodstock, N.Y. She was educated at the Little Red School House, a progressive school, and graduated from the High School of Music and Art in 1940.

She and Mr. Seeger met at a square dance and married in 1943. He couldn’t afford a ring, so she borrowed money from her grandmother to buy one. He was short $3 for the marriage license, so she lent him that.

The Seegers moved to their cabin in 1949 and at first lived without running water or electricity. When her husband was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee about his leftist activities in the 1950s, Mrs. Seeger accompanied him to Washington, bringing their children.

In 1961, he was cited for contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in jail. “I accepted every booking that came in, figuring that most of them would be canceled,” Mrs. Seeger said, “but the appeals court acquitted him and nothing was canceled. It was a horrendously busy year.”

“Never again,” she said. “Next time let him go to jail.”

Her gentle chiding curbed any chance that Mr. Seeger’s ego would balloon. “I hate it when people romanticize him,” she said. “He’s like anybody good at his craft, like a good bulldozer operator.”

In addition to her husband, Mrs. Seeger is survived by her son, Daniel; her daughters, Mika Seeger and Tinya Seeger; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

Mrs. Seeger wasn’t a songwriter, but years ago she wrote five verses to add to Mr. Seeger’s four-verse classic “Turn, Turn, Turn,” adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes. During the last year, he began singing them in performances, first as a tribute to his wife and then because audiences liked them. A sample:

A time to hug, a time to kiss

A time to close your eyes and wish.


Toshi Seeger, Wife Of Folk Singer Pete Seeger, Dies At 91

Toshi Seeger with her husband, folk singer Pete Seeger, in 2009.

Toshi Seeger with her husband, folk singer Pete Seeger, in 2009.

Bennett Raglin/Getty Images

Anyone who worked closely with knew the legendary folk singer’s wife. For seven decades, Toshi Seeger organized his festivals and handled his travel and correspondence. The social activist died Tuesday. She was 91.

Singer , who has known the family since the 1960s, says that while Pete kept an exhaustive schedule touring the world, Toshi worked just as hard behind the scenes.

“Toshi was fundamental to his life,” Collins says. “And I think she enabled him to have kind of the worldwide presence … she had every bit of a part in that.”

Toshi, who also raised the couple’s children, had a very dry sense of humor, says the musician Ruth Ungar. The daughter of fiddler Jay Ungar, Ruth has known the Seegers since she was a little girl. She says she remembers seeing an old New Yorker cartoon on their kitchen wall.

“It’s a woman answering the phone and she’s got a baby under one arm, or maybe two. And she’s doing the dishes with one hand and mopping the floor with [her] foot,” Ungar explains. “And the quote on the bottom says something like, ‘I’m sorry, my husband can’t come to the phone right now. He’s out fighting for the rights of the oppressed.’ “

Toshi’s father was Japanese; her mother was American. She grew up in Woodstock, N.Y., and she and Pete eventually built a home in nearby Beacon.

In the 1960s, the couple collaborated with folklorist Bruce Jackson on the film Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison, which is now in the Library of Congress.

In 2006, Toshi told the American Folklife Center about their approach to making the film.

“In the Texas thing, I had no idea what was going to happen,” she said. “So any of the framing or anything is on the spur of the moment.”

Toshi Seeger’s creative spontaneity also extended to music. At one point she rewrote the lyrics to one of Pete’s most famous tunes: “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

“Way back in the year of 1954, when I thought of this melody, my wife and I had two little kids,” Pete Seeger said during a performance of the tune last year at Symphony Space in New York. “One was age 6, the other was age 8. And my wife made up five verses for them.”

Toshi Seeger died at home, just shy of her 70th wedding anniversary.