THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: TOSHI SEEGER’S ARTFUL LIFE: From folk music and film producer to organizer

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bioline_Greg RobinsonToshi Ohta Seeger was a remarkable Nisei who collaborated with her longtime husband Pete Seeger in his musical career and support for progressive causes. However, both because she was an Asian American woman, and because she preferred to shun the spotlight and work in the background, she has not historically received the attention she was due for her long career.

Toshi-Aline Ohta was the daughter of Takashi Ueda Ohta, the son of an elite Japanese family, who presented a version of his unusual story in “The Golden Wind” (1929), a well-received semi-autobiographical novel co-written with American writer Margaret Sperry. Takashi Ohta’s father Sumiwo Ohta had been one of the first Japanese to study in Europe, and was radicalized after witnessing the Paris Commune of 1871. In later life, he had translated works by Karl Marx into Japanese and had raised money for Sun Yat-sen to start a revolution in China. After Sumiwo was sentenced to banishment for his political activities, young Takashi agreed to leave Japan in place of his father, as was then possible under Japanese law. Following periods of residence in China, South Africa, South America and Europe, Takashi came to the United States. Once in the United States, he gravitated to New York, where he worked as a set designer for the famous theater troupe Provincetown Players. During this time, he met Virginia Harper Berry, a white American from Virginia. The two married in 1921, then left the country when Virginia became pregnant.

Toshi, their first child, was born in Munich, Germany on July 1, 1922, then entered the United States with her mother at the age of six months. As the daughter of a white American (although technically Virginia Ohta should have lost her U.S. citizenship by marrying an “alien ineligible to citizenship”), she was allowed in, and ultimately recognized as a U.S. citizen. After a stay in Philadelphia, where Toshi’s younger brother Allen Homorei Ohta was born, the Ohta family settled in New York’s Greenwich Village. There Takashi worked as a painter and supported himself by working various jobs, including serving as caretaker at the Henry Street Settlement house complex.

In 1928, Takashi was named set designer and scenic director at the Maverick Theatre, located around the Woodstock artists’ colony in upstate New York. The family moved up with him. Toshi attended the Bearsville School. In 1932, 10-year-old Toshi played a shepherd in the Woodstock Community Christmas Festival. In the depths of the Great Depression, the Ohtas lived off of what they could grow and sell.

By 1935, the Ohta family left Woodstock and moved back to Manhattan. Takashi was offered a dramatic role as a Japanese conference delegate in Protestant minister John Haynes Holmes’ antiwar drama “If This Be Treason.” He would return to Broadway eight years later, in Victor Wofson’s Chinese drama “The Family.” During these years, Toshi attended the progressive school The Little Red School House in New York City, then enrolled at the High School of Music and Art. In 1939, while still in high school, she met the folk singer and activist Pete Seeger at a square dance, and agreed soon after to help him put together a book of labor songs. Soon, the two started dating.

In the period following the U.S. entry into war in December 1941, the young Toshi joined the newly-founded Japanese American Committee for Democracy. It would be one of the few times in her career that she engaged in activities within the Japanese American community. According to the JACD Newsletter, in June 1942, she hosted a tea party at her home for Nisei girls to encourage them to become active in the war effort. Shortly after, she was elected to the JACD executive board, and served as a program committee volunteer.

Even as Toshi remained active in the JACD, her fiancé Pete Seeger was interrogated over her associations. According to a 2015 Rafu Shimpo article, based on documents obtained from Seeger’s FBI file, the singer sent a letter to the American Legion in fall 1942 vehemently opposing the Legion’s resolution calling for Japanese Americans to be stripped of citizenship and deported after the war. The FBI then launched an investigation of Seeger, who reported that his fiancée was a loyal American whose father had come to the United States because he disagreed with Japanese militarists, and who was working for the JACD: “This organization, according to (Seeger), was organized for the purpose of showing this country that the Japanese who were born here are one hundred percent American.”

In 1943, Toshi married Pete Seeger, then on furlough from the Army. She seems to have withdrawn then from the leadership of the JACD, although it may have been Toshi who used her connections with folksingers Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie to get them to perform at JACD dances. In 1944, she gave birth to a son, Peter. He lived just six months, and never met his father, who was stationed overseas.

In the first years after World War II, Toshi was primarily involved in caring for the home and for her family. During this period, the Seegers had three children, Mika, Tinya and Daniel. In 1949, the family moved to Beacon, New York where they built their own log cabin, at first without electricity or running water. (Takashi came to live with the family, most likely after Virginia’s death in 1958, and remained until his own passing in 1970). Still, Toshi joined her husband in various political activities, including campaigning for Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party presidential candidacy, and attending political protests. The Seeger family attended singer Paul Robeson’s controversial 1949 concert in Peekskill, New York, where their car was attacked and windows broken by right-wing vigilantes.

After 1950, Pete Seeger became increasingly renowned as a folk music performer, first as a member of the popular group the Weavers, later as a soloist. Toshi was the main supporter for Pete Seeger’s career. She served as his producer, booking agent, and publicist, and also helped answer mail and handle financial affairs for him. She ultimately branched out to serve as booking agent for other musicians as well.

During the late 1950s, Pete Seeger was blacklisted for his left-wing associations. In 1961, he was sentenced to a year in prison for contempt of Congress, a sentence overturned on appeal. During this time, he was largely unemployable as a concert artist. Toshi collaborated with Pete, and later their son Dan, in ethnomusicology and filmmaking. In 1951, the Seegers helped record folk music at a Texas prison. In 1956 it was released as the “Negro Prison Camp Work Songs” LP. In the early 1960s, the Seegers took a trip around the world and visited folk musicians on several continents. Although untrained in cinematography and filmmaking, Toshi co-produced, directed, shot and edited short films of folk music taken during the visit, including pieces set in Ireland, Italy and other places. For example, the Seegers Folkore Research film “Duke Tritton, Australian Sheep-Shearer” featured an interview with a legendary composer of sheep songs. Their 1964 film “The Singing Fisherman of Ghana” features songs created by fisherman in the West African coast town of Winneba. After returning, she continued her filmmaking in travels with her husband around the United States. Their 1966 film “Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison” depicts music made by inmates. The Seegers also produced “The Many-Colored Paper” and “The Country Fiddle.” Their films were later collected into the DVD “A Musical Journey: The Films of Pete, Toshi and Dan Seeger.”

In 1965-1966, when Pete Seeger was no longer banned from television, Toshi directed and produced his public television show, “Rainbow Quest.” In 1968, the two were co-producers of “Circle of Lights,” a televised holiday songfest.

In addition to working with her husband, Toshi served as chief organizer in the early years of the Newport Folk Festival. Before the first festival in 1959, according to one source, she not only produced the list of performers, but established the principle that no performer, whether a star or an unknown, would be paid more that $50 for their work. Meanwhile, she attended civil rights demonstrations in the South and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. in 1965. Her support for singer/activist Bernice Johnson Reagon, a leader in the Albany, Ga. civil rights campaign, led Reagon to name her daughter, the future singer Toshi Reagon, in honor of Toshi Seeger.

Beginning in the 1970s, Toshi Seeger became best known for her work with the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater organization, a nonprofit organization that the Seegers founded to advance the goal of cleaning the polluted Hudson River. Organizers used a replica of an 18th century sailing ship as a vehicle for raising funds and publicity. (According to one story, it was Toshi who steered the boat, and who first taught her husband to sail). She organized the annual Clearwater Great Hudson River Revival, a folk music festival and seedbed of activism, ran the events — such as dropping the stone in the “stone soup” symbolizing community cooperation — and recruited performers for benefit concerts.

In later years, Toshi continued her efforts. In 1990 the Seegers were jointly presented Wespac’s Peace and Justice Award. Toshi Seeger was likewise honored by being appointed to the New York State Council on the Arts. In 2007, at age 85, she served as executive producer of an Emmy Award-winning documentary on her husband, “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.” She created a new version for children of Pete Seeger’s song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” which was featured in Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell’s 2013 album of that name.

Toshi Ohta Seeger died in July 2013, one year before her husband. Shortly after, the Pete and Toshi Seeger Riverside Park was named in their honor in their hometown of Beacon, New York.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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