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Pete's 99th birthday

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Sharing songs for more than 60 years!

HomeFolk Music News3. People, Places & MiscellanyPete Seeger Statue Unveiled in Teaneck, New Jersey
 
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Pete Seeger Statue Unveiled in Teaneck, New Jersey

Pete Seeger statue with sculptor Gary Sussman (and wife, Barbara)

Seeger statue with sculptor Gary Sussman (and wife, Barbara)

On Saturday May 5, 2018 the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck, New Jersey publicly unveiled a statue honoring the life and work of Pete Seeger. Located in the Puffin Sculpture Garden, the outdoor statue has been installed near the start of a 1.3 mile nature trail organized by the non-profit Teaneck Creek Conservancy.

The bronze statue depicts Pete Seeger sitting on a marble bench with his banjo in hand, evoking a feeling that invites people to sit next to him and contemplate the world around them. The statue is placed on a base of imperial marble from a Maine quarry and it features a background with images from Pete’s life and work – the depiction of the Clearwater sailing down the river that was the focus of his efforts to clean up as well as a tool to teach visitors about environmental dangers. Over his left shoulder (yes, the LEFT shoulder was purposely chosen) there is a relief carving of a group of protesters each carrying signs from many of the causes that Pete rallied around.

Unveiling of the Pete Seeger statue at the Puffin Cultural Forum

“We didn’t want an imposing Pete or a heroic Pete or a Pete up on a pedestal” noted Neil Rosenstein, the vice president of the Puffin Foundation as he spoke to the assembled crowd at the unveiling. “We wanted a Pete that you could come and sit down next to and share a raisin biscuit, or maybe some kids could come and sit on his lap or climb all over him, or perhaps a performer could come and not only sing in front of him but sit down next to him and share a song for or with Pete.”

The idea for creating a statue of Pete Seeger was conceived by Neil’s father, Puffin Cultural Forum president Perry Rosenstein, shortly after Pete’s passing in 2014. With approval and input from the Seeger family, the Puffin Foundation commissioned sculptor Gary Sussman to create the piece.

“One thing was vitally important to us here at Puffin as this project proceeded” Neil explained, ”(was that) Seeger should be honored not only as one of America’s greatest folk artists, but as an activist who used his talent to fight for so many issues throughout his life, issues that remain so important today, for we find ourselves still mired in many of the same and many new threats to our country – we’re still indeed waist deep in the big muddy.”

Carved images of protestors on the Pete Seeger statue

Perry’s wife Gladys, the executive director of the Puffin, remarked that Pete and her husband shared similar ideologies and support for progressive causes. “The statue represents, besides Pete, all the people and ideas that he believed in” Gladys declared. “In the very difficult times that we live in today, we thought it would be wonderful to walk by or sit next to Pete and remember his vision and hope that in our busy and many times difficult lives we remember those beautiful words and know that all of us can do something.”

Residents of Teaneck, philanthropists Gladys and Perry Rosenstein founded the Puffin Foundation in 1983 to provide an outlet for artistic expression for artists, thinkers and organizations that were often overlooked by the mainstream arts orgranizations. Perry Rosenstein seeded the money for the Foundation from the fortune he acquired from his business selling and manufacturing Allen Screws. Over the years, the Puffin Foundation has given out nearly 400 grants per year to a variety of artists who would have trouble finding the funding from established arts foundations. They also opened the doors to the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck, a gallery and performance space that offers an outlet to the local community for expression and dialogue.

When the idea of the Pete Seeger statue came about, Teaneck Creek Conservancy Executive Director Alexa Marques suggested a former Teaneck resident to create the piece. Working with the Puffin and the Seeger family, they chose Gary Sussman.

Sculptor Gary Sussman

“Almost 60 years ago, I spent my adolescence just three blocks from here” Gary remarked. He told the audience that he would follow a stream that led from his house to the current location of the Puffin which at the time was little more than a dumping ground. During those years, Gary witnessed “pollution of every sort, dumping of every sort and an out of site out of mind prevailing attitude. Right here where I played as a child, legal and illegal dumping was occurring on a daily basis.”

In his remarks at the unveiling, Sussman recognized the work of the Puffin and the Teaneck Creek Conservancy to return the land to a healthy environment. “This is no small feat. It takes a willing people to recognize the problem and to take action to correct it.”

In 2001, the Puffin Foundation joined forces with a group of environmentalists, artists and educators to help form the Teaneck Creek Conservancy. The group reclaimed a parcel of land located behind the Pufflin Cultural Forum that had been used a dumping ground during the construction of the neighboring intersections of Route 80 and 95 as well as illegal dumping by individuals over the decades. Working with the Bergen County Parks department and community leaders, they proceeded to clean and revitalize the land, creating a series of groomed trails and ecological exhibits that have made the site an important resource in Bergen County. It is now a series of nature trails and an outdoor classroom that explores the natural and historic importance of the watershed. Now, the statue of Pete Seeger will greet visitors at the start of the trails.

The Pete Seeger statue, sculpted by Gary Sussman.

Gary reminded the audience that Pete saw environmental injustices throughout his entire life. “The difference between Pete and the rest of us is that Pete did something about it.”

Acknowledging that Pete Seeger would not want a monument that glorified his image, Gary explained ”this monument is here to perpetuate his vision, his purpose and his legacy, the legacy of social and environmental activism – then, now and in the future.”

“This sculpture is here to remind us of the importance of organizations like the Puffin Foundation and the Sloop Clearwater” Gary explained. ”They both bring awareness to social and environmental issues in our daily lives which inform us of about the special interests of the tyrannical forces of the zeitgeist and those who defend most vehemently that which is their pretense. If we are to live our lives in harmony with nature we must pay attention to the songs and images that she gives us.”

At the unveiling ceremony, David Bernz and his son Jacob provided the music. David, a friend and neighbor of Pete’s in Beacon, New York was also the Grammy Award winning producer of Pete’s two Grammy Award winning CDs, At 89 and Tomorrow’s Children. He was also a member of Work of the Weavers, a group that paid tribute and carried on the legacy of the seminal folk group the Weavers that was co-founded by Pete Seeger.

After the ribbon cutting and unveiling of the statue, several children in the crowd were drawn the bench and began climbing on the statue, as intended by everyone connected with it. David Bernz remarked how Pete loved children and would have enjoyed it. Later, people sat on the bench and began singing songs.

The statue unveiling was part of the a weekend of events at the Puffin in honor of Seeger, including exhibits on the creation of the statue, a showing of the documentary The Power of Song, several open stages and a performance by Tom Chapin, a friend who performed with Seeger on many occasions.

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While Pete may not have wanted to see a statue of himself, I recall that one of his favorite sayings was a paraphrase of an old quote: “The price of liberty is eternal publicity”. When he helped create the Sloop Clearwater, his intention was to have a boat that would bring people down to the river to experience the pollution that was being inflicted on his beloved Hudson River, and also to let people become aware of the beauty of the river and all it has to offer.

Singing at the Pete Seeger statue, Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck, NJ

With this new statue in his memory and in recognition of his ideals, I think that future generations will also be inspired as they come and sit by his statues side and experience the work done by both the Puffin Foundation and the Teaneck Creek Conservancy. It is so much more than a memorial; it can become a gathering spot and a beacon for what we can do to make this a better world. “Think globally and act locally” was an expression that Pete Seeger embodied, and I hope everyone that who finds themselves in New Jersey will take some time to visit and contemplate.

The Puffin Cultural Forum is located at 20 Puffin Way in Teaneck, NJ – right off Teaneck Road and near the intersections of Routes 80 and 95. To find out more about the Puffin and the programs they present, visit their website at puffinculturalforum.org

Click below to listen to hear highlights of the unveiling ceremony
held at the Puffin Cultural Forum, in Teaneck, New Jersey on May 5, 2018

 

About Ron Olesko

For over 40 years, Ron has been a radio programmer with WFDU-FM in Teaneck, New Jersey. He created WFDU-FM's TRADITIONS in 1980, a show that he continues to host and produce every Sunday afternoon from 3 to 6pm Eastern Time. He's the president of and booker for the Hurdy Gurdy Folk Music Club in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and is a regular contributor to Sing Out! as well as the host of the Folk Music Notebook blog on this site. Ron can also be found emceeing concerts and festivals around the NYC/NJ area. A lifelong Mets fan and a rabid soccer geek, Ron is a Red Bull season ticket holder since their inception and will most likely be in his seat when not in the studio.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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