Pete Seeger and Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962-64): A Short Memoir

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Tom Hebert

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.

Pete Seeger - 1964

Pete Seeger - 1964

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

Ah, Pete.

Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962-64) is a writer and public policy consultant living on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

8 Comments

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  • Thanks, Tom..

    Recently in touch with other era icons Peter Yarrow and Tom Paxton. We still press on…Ah!

    (Tom is also a cowboy in addition to being a writer!!!)

  • Tom:
    Thanks for sharing your Pete Seeger story. Please email me when you are next in Portland, Oregon, where my family lives, and you have time for lunch.

  • I’m abashed to realize that I missed the Pete Seeger visit to Nigeria. I was a PCV in Enugu in Eastern Nigeria at that time. My life tangentially glanced off Seeger when my wife and I saw him in Grand Central Station (NYC) years later apparently meeting or taking a train. He was carrying a banjo in a case. And a college roommate of mine was a volunteer for several years on Pete’s Hudson River boat the Clearwater. And I once met Lee Hays of the Weavers at a party in Brooklyn. And I was a fraternity rushing partner of Peter Yarrow’s at Cornell. And I organized and managed two USIA-sponsored concerts in Rwanda by the blues singer Memphis Slim in the late ’70s. That all adds up to … what?

  • Tom — loved your story. It was also just good to hear one of your great stories again. let me know if you ever leave the reservation and come East to your old stomping grounds.

  • Tom — thanks for sharing the story. Do you and Robert Hamilton know about the Thirsters here in Portland? It’s sort of a weekly salon that includes a lot of older Peace Corps types. It was set up by Robert Textor, a consultant to the Peace Corps in its early days, who later taught Anthropology at Stanford. We still meet, even though Bob died about a year ago, and it would be fun to have you come and tell your Seeger story . . . or maybe tell us what you are doing on that reservation. David

  • Gents:

    Sorry I didn’t get back to you earlier. Thank you for your nice comments.

    First, Dennis Grubb, old friend, after a lifetime of horses (Including a polo pony in Ibadan), and later much saddle time pushing cows for various ranchers around Pendleton, Oregon, at age 70 I became a professional cowhand. This happened when the Umatilla Tribal cattle program started paying my gas bills trailering my pony up into the Blue Mountains to help move their cattle around. This all happened because I was a co-founder of the tribal cattle program. I’m also the “tribal horse guy.” Ask anyone. Go figure.

    Second, Robert Hamilton. You suggested that I email you when next in Portland. Well. I don’t go there much anymore. I pass through pulling my horse trailer on my annual trip to the ocean, but don’t stop there (traffic!). But. . . .

    Third, Larry Lesser: I’m glad you asked me what all your encounters with those musicians add up to (Memphis Slim… you knew him? Wow)!.

    Well, happy to tell you what it all adds up to: a life well-lived.

    Third, Pettit. Lord knows you’ve heard my stories. Worse still, stories in general are more for the teller than the listener. Several years ago (before the PC 50th) I decided that I would never cross the Mississippi again. It simplified my life. But I regret not having you spring for a round of cheer.

    Fourth, Roger, same, same. You’ve abided a life-time of Hebert and his stories. Thank you.

    Fifth, David Raphael: Hmmm. The Thirsters. Because I love innovative meeting processes, Robert Texter and I talked about my coming to a meeting, It never happend and then. . . darn.

    But come spring or summer I might be lured by free jug wine to come down to a meeting. Remind me to alert Robert Hamilton.

    So, guys, thanks again for reading and liking my little Pete Seeger story. Email me and I will forward a horsey and fun New Year’s Eve column for the local paper. You know, writers have no shame when hustling up readers. email: tlhmavrick@gmail.com

    Tom Hebert

  • Tom: We’ve got a jug of wine, and more — any Thursday night at McMenamins’ Broadway Pub. You are always welcome. David

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