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He Was Singing the Blues Till His Old Friend Returned

Veteran folk singer Pete Seeger's beloved banjo, which he built himself 55 years ago, was sadly lost--but now is found.

August 22, 2000|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It had the makings of an international incident.

The banjo on which Pete Seeger recorded "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," and many of his other best-known tunes, was missing and presumed stolen.

But on Monday afternoon, almost two weeks later, it turned up again.

Jennifer Russell of the Clearwater environmental group, said Seeger's wife called and said the banjo had been found by a man who went on vacation before returning it. Clearwater is the organization started by Seeger in the 1960s to help clean up the Hudson River. Police late Monday confirmed the return of the vaunted instrument.

The problems began Aug. 8, when Seeger, 81, stopped for coffee in Rosendale, N.Y.--a sleepy upstate town where ex-hippies, artists and musicians gather. He left his old banjo in a tattered green cloth case in his aged Toyota. He didn't lock the doors because nobody ever does in Rosendale, where crime is usually not an issue.

When Seeger returned to his car, the old banjo was gone. It was his favorite. His primo, No. 1 instrument--the only one of its kind. On it, he had inscribed "This Machine Surrounds Hatred and Forces It to Surrender."

"I can't imagine why someone would steal it," the singer later told a reporter. At first, he thought he was having a bout of forgetfulness. Did he take it into the cafe? He ran back, but nobody had seen it. Seeger was depressed and upset. He drove home, told his wife and friends, and decided to offer a reward of $1,000.

It was immediately clear to those who know him, and to the millions who know of him, that the disappearance of that particular five-stringed instrument--which he built himself--was a calamity of the highest order.

A few days after the apparent theft, a likeness of the banjo showed up on EBay for auction. But Arlo Guthrie, son of the famed late Dust Bowl balladeer, Woody, who was a good friend of Seeger, investigated the item offered for sale and pronounced it a fraud.

The banjo, which has an extended neck, was designed and built by Seeger 55 years ago as a prototype, and was later produced and sold commercially by Vega as the PS5.

On that instrument, all the tunes that Seeger wrote--or found on travels around the world--have been played. "Wimoweh," "Turn Turn Turn," "If I Had a Hammer," "We Shall Overcome," "On Top of Old Smoky," "Good Night Irene"--all folk songs written or popularized by Seeger. Some had been part of the oral tradition, never before written down. Others were penned by this gentle soul who started the Almanac Singers, and later the best-selling folk group the Weavers.

Decades after being blacklisted for refusing to answer questions about Communist affiliations, Seeger is a venerated senior, having won Kennedy Center honors in 1994 and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Also in that year, he was awarded the Harvard Arts Medal, although he left Harvard University while in his second year, so he could pursue his music. He won a Grammy in 1997 for best traditional folk album.

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