Pete Seeger’s Summer Camp Legacy

by Barbara Nevins Taylor

Seeger Fest, the five day festival of song in New York City and the Hudson Valley, honoring Peter Seeger and his wife Toshi reminded us of the importance  of his legacy of inspiration and activism.  He touched people in big and small ways. My small brush with Pete Seeger came when I was a very young girl.

The video and photo are of Pete at the Surprise Lake Camp just north of Cold Spring, New York in the Hudson Valley. They are relatively recent and many campers of many ages are likely to have photos, videos and film that stretch back decades.

Pete lived nearby in Dutchess County and often visited the camp and sang with the young people who spent a few weeks there every year in July and August.

I went to Surprise Lake in the fifties and Peter Seeger was one of the unexpected gifts of summer. I had no idea who he was at the time, but he influenced me greatly.

Our family was very poor and camp seemed like a vacation for the rich kids in two-parent households. But our mother was resourceful. She went to work after our father left and managed to make the most of  the $45 a week she earned at first.

She wanted what she called “a normal life” for her daughters and summer camp was part of that. She jumped at the opportunity when someone in a support group called Parents Without Partners told her about Jewish Federation camps.

She learned that they considered your income and charged what you could afford. I remember her in the breakfast nook of our little kitchen filling out the papers and calculating the cost. I think she paid something like $18 dollars for me for three weeks, and another $18 dollars for my sister who went to a camp called Wel-Met.

I loved Surprise Lake. It introduced me to the woods, hiking, running, swimming in a cold deep lake and crafts that I fumbled with. Every day was special and action-packed. In the early evening, campers and counselors sat around the flagpole near the lake and sang the songs that shaped the way I think about America, other people and responsibility.

Sometimes a counselor led the singalongs and other evenings Pete Seeger appeared like a magician, seemly out of nowhere. He strummed his banjo and sang in that sweet, clear voice:

“If I had a hammer,

I’d hammer in the morning,

I’d hammer in the evening,

All over this land,

I’d hammer out danger,

I’d hammer out a warning,

I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,

All over this land.”

I heard the message. I knew I wasn’t a singer. Other campers at other times, like Neil Diamond, were inspired to sing by Pete Seeger, to really sing.  But I did hear the words and got it. I was inspired by the message and the feeling of empathy and compassion.

Speaking up for what’s right and fair made a lot of sense to me. It still does.

I am just one of millions touched by Pete Seeger, but I appreciate what he passed on to me and others and will continue to singalong in my way.

Thank you, Pete. You live on.


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Barbara Nevins Taylor

As the winner of 22 Emmy Awards and a slew of journalism honors and awards, I created to give you the straight story about complicated stuff. Tell us what you want to know and we'll get you the answers.

4 thoughts on “Pete Seeger’s Summer Camp Legacy”

  1. Surprise Lake Camp offered me a summer respite from the hot sidewalks of University Avenue in the Bronx upon my arrival in America in 1959. We were underprivileged newcomers living in a 5th story walk-up and my parents sent me to a far-away place called Cold Spring, NY for a couple of weeks. I barely spoke English in those days, and for all I know Pete Seeger may have been there, but I had never heard of him and knew very little about American folk songs that he, Woody Guthrie, and others had written and popularized. But the Eddie Cantor open-air theater was the beginning of my American acculturation, Today I am amused how a place less than an hour’s drive from my home seemed like a foreign paradise, filled with fun activities that I still remember more than 50 years hence.

    1. It’s funny that we thought the camp was so far away. It was another world for city kids. The air was fresh, the nights were cool and most of us felt lucky to be there.

  2. This is an amazing story professor. Even for a short time that I learned about Pete Seeger, he became an inspiration to me. Russell and I are grateful to had a chance to see him perform.

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