Before coffee early Tuesday morning on the Indian Reservation in Oregon where I live, I checked my email and from Boston, I heard from Murray Frank, my Peace Corps boss in Nigeria: Murray wrote: “Tom, Pete Seeger died yesterday. I thought of you when I read about it. Thanks to you, we got to know him a little.”
Yes, Seeger and Hebert in Nigeria.
Back in 1964 as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ibadan, Nigeria, because of my role as the business and tour manager of the University of Ibadan’s new School of Drama, I was asked by the American government to handle a non-sponsored tour Seeger was making to Nigeria. The U. S. Embassy knew that beyond working with Nigerian media, I was well-versed in its traditional and popular music and dance scene.
So, for about a week in January, 1964, in a tiny rusty old Austin A40 Dorset 2-door, I banged around Nigeria, West Africa with Pete Seeger, setting up meetings, TV appearances, little concerts, helping him get into West African music, meet traditional juju and High Life musicians and just jamming.
Fast forwarding a decade, I ran into Pete on an escalator at Amherst College in Massachusetts. We were laughing about our West African week as the last step leveled out — he off to a concert, I to an alternative energy conference. We never met again. But I have an African moment with Pete Seeger that I treasure.
It was night in Nigeria, it was dark, it was storming rain, can’t see nothin’, dodging potholes that could swallow Austin cars, my girlfriend and I in the front seat, Seeger in the back, we had just left a TV studio taping. Never tired, Pete pulled out his 12-string guitar – of which he was a master – began idly plucking snatches of tunes when I turned to him, “Lead Belly’s 12-string-what did it sound like?”
Lighting up with memory of Huddie Ledbetter — Lead Belly, the King of the 12-string guitar — his old friend and famed black blues and folk singer, “Yes!”
Then his arm raised high and on his special 12-string guitar (tuned two whole steps down with very heavy strings), he struck down with a crashing chord that still shocks my soul as Lead Belly HOWLED above the storm,
Black girl, black girl don’t lie to me
Tell me where did you sleep last night
In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines
I would shiver the whole night through
Black girl, black girl, where will you go
I’m goin’ where the cold wind blows
Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962-64) is a writer and public policy consultant living on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.