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Ageless folk singer inspires Forest Hills schoolchildren

By Daniel Massey

In the middle of reciting the tale of a little boy who slays a monster by wailing away on his ukulele and singing the giant’s name, “Ab-i-yo-yo,” Pete Seeger, 82, broke out into a jig and pranced across the stage at the Forest Hills Jewish Center Sunday evening.

More than 600 enthusiastic fans cheered in delight. They had waited nearly two hours to hear Seeger sing, and as afternoon gave way to evening, it grew apparent that the wait was going to be worth it.

Seeger’s romp across the stage, banjo in hand, to the traditional South African fairy tale marked the highlight of a day of speeches, readings and music organized to uplift the community following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Students from three metropolitan area Solomon Schechter Schools joined young people from the Central Queens YM&YWHA and the Forest Hills Jewish Center in poetry readings and song amid a display of student artwork on themes related to Sept. 11.

Councilwoman Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills), Councilman James Gennaro (D-Jamaica Estates), state Sen. Daniel Hevesi (D-Forest Hills) and state Assemblyman Michael Cohen (D-Forest Hills) joined in the festivities, with Katz and Cohen handing out awards to the students for their work.

Gennaro, who was recently appointed chairman of the City Council’s Environmental Protection Committee, said he showed up at the concert to honor Seeger’s longtime commitment to cleaning up the Hudson River.

The councilman, who said his favorite Seeger song is “If I Had a Hammer,” encouraged all the students in attendance to check out the website of Seeger’s Clearwater organization.

“Everyone knows Pete Seeger is a great champion for human rights,” Gennaro told the children. “You may not have known that he has inspired and led a major environmental group.”

The musician, famous for writing songs such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and popularizing the anti-apartheid song “Wimoweh,” is no stranger to performing during tenuous moments in history.

Since the 1930s he has sung out against McCarthyism, the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa. He was a voice of the civil rights struggle, popularizing the movement’s anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

Following nearly two hours of songs and readings by the schoolchildren, Seeger took the stage accompanied by Forest Hills’ own Paul Suchow in an effort to do what he has done throughout his career—bring people together through music.

Strumming on his trademark banjo inscribed with the words “this machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” and wearing a white yarmulke in a sign of respect for the venue, the ageless folksinger began a 10-song set with his adaptation of Cuban revolutionary José Martí’s poem “Guantanamera.”

Introducing “This Land is Your Land,” he told the students the song never made the top 40, and that it was never on the radio. “It was the children singing in schools that spread this song to the whole world,” he sang out.

The audience broke out in chants of “Pete! Pete! Pete,” and young children belted out the words to the Woody Guthrie classic.

After Seeger sang for about 40 minutes, the students joined him on stage for a series of songs, including the concert’s finale, “There’ll Come a Day,” which was written especially for the Forest Hills sing-out.

The schoolchildren said it was “cool” to perform with Seeger. “To be singing with him is a huge deal,” said Ben Mernick, a sophomore at the Solomon Schechter High School of Manhattan. “All his songs have great messages,” said Josh Suchow, 14, the son of Seeger’s folksinging partner.

Some of the adults thought the wait to hear Seeger was excessive.

“I’ve sat through many a school assembly, but to wait more than an hour and a half before Pete sang was ridiculous,” said a woman who did not want her name used.

In the lobby following the show, many concertgoers remarked that they felt bad that Seeger had to sit on the stage for nearly two hours before getting a chance to sing.

But most agreed that his performance made up for the long wait.

“Oh God! He sang ‘Abiyoyo,’ which is my favorite song,” said Little Neck resident Abby Farber. “I thought if I’m kicking around that good when I’m 82, I’ll be in good shape.”

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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