July 11, 2013
Young Toshi, photo by Gene Deitch ©
Toshi-Aline Ohta Seeger, wife of folk music icon Pete Seeger, passed away overnight on Tuesday, July 9th. She was a mother, an organizer, an activist and filmmaker … and an essential part of all of her husband’s work. She was 91.
As much as Pete is a consummate dreamer and optimist, Toshi had a strength and brilliance that was at least his equal. Theirs was a true partnership. Without Toshi’s counsel and support, and always outspoken and direct opinions, it’s clear to anyone who ever met these two remarkable people that, without Toshi, Pete would never have had the foundation and freedom to do the work that made him so legendary.
But Toshi, despite her profound wisdom, strength, morality and courage, was also extremely modest and self-effacing. Often rebuffing attention paid to her, and always doing a loving job at making sure that Pete was always grounded and clear about how his work, his missions, were always bigger than a single man or woman.
Toshi was born in Munich, Germany, to an American mother and a Japanese father. Her parents brought her to the U.S. when she was 6 months old, as soon as it became legal for the two to be married here. They found an apartment in New York City, where her father found work as the building’s caretaker.
Toshi grew up in a family of progressives. She went to the High School of Music and Art, and . After a few years of friendship, meeting Pete at square dances around NYC, Pete and Toshi were married in 1943, just before Pete was about to ship out overseas. She was age 21 at the time. Pete wrote in his autobiography that they “found we had much in common. Her parents were extraordinary people. We were all very close. Her mother, descended from Old Virginny (slave owners), had declared her independence from that racist part of her tradition, moved to Greenwich Village, married a Japanese who was in political exile, as mililarists were taking over his homeland. He did important and dangerous work for the U.S. Army in WWII.
While he was overseas during the war, Pete and Toshi corresponded via letters incessantly.
In 1949, following the war, the two moved to Beacon, NY, where they raised their children Danny, Mika and Tinya. They built a cabin for shelter, and lived in that beautiful woodland mountain ever since.
Over the last decades, Toshi became a key leader and artistic programmer for the Great Hudson River Revival, the annual fundraiser for the Clearwater organization, and a true mecca for those of us who adopted Pete, and Toshi’s, view that music could be a tool to help focus activism. She also played a pivotal role in Clearwater sloop voyages. Pete often sang her praises as an organizer: “after having to organize me for 66 years, no wonder.”
Toshi’s credits also included filmmaking, recording Texas inmates performing hard labor. The film, “Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison,” is part of the Library of Congress archives.
Pete’s career became a consuming part of her life, and he spent many days away from the home. After being acquitted after the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Toshi had said “Never again. Next time no appeal. Let him go to jail.”
But the two remained strong throughout the years. She took care of the home, always gardening and was a terrific cook, raising their children and making a wonderful home as Pete traveled the world making his music.
Toshi suffered from ailing health these past few years, and her trips around the Revival “campus” during the festival had stopped … but the love and admiration we all had for this great lady was not diminished one sliver. She will be greatly missed … and we send our deepest condolences to Pete and the rest of the family.
Here’s a brief audio clip of Pete talking about Toshi from the audiobook PETE SEEGER: THE STORM KING: