Press-Republican

February 5, 2014

The folksinger and the folklorist

ROBIN CAUDELL
Press-Republican

PLATTSBURGH — The late Pete Seeger’s reach was immeasurable, and touched locally due to his and his wife’s love of the Adirondacks and their long friendship with historian/folklorist Marjorie Lansing Porter.

The great-granddaughter of abolitionist and Essex County Republican founder and publisher Wendell Lansing, Porter was a newshound by blood.

She was an editor of the Essex County Republican and columnist for Adirondack Life, North Country Life, Press-Republican, North Countryman, Valley News and Elizabethtown Post.

Porter was also Essex County Historian and one of the founders of the Adirondack History Center Museum in Elizabethtown.

In her spare time, she collected traditional music all over the Adirondacks.

KEENE OLD TIMER’S DAY

Seeger recalled meeting Porter at a Lake George festival in the early 1950s, according to a YouTube video posted by Porter’s granddaughter and music producer, June Millington, May 18, 2009.

At the festival, Porter was accompanied by Lawrence Older, an Adirondack fiddler and singer, and Ray Tehanetorens Fadden, founder of the Six Nations Indian Museum at Onchiota.

Porter told Seeger about Older Timer’s Day in Keene. Seeger attended one on July 25, 1954.

“On the field recordings she made, you can hear Pete on the banjo backing Dean White of Elizabethtown and Lawrence Older,” said Lee Knight, a folksinger/storyteller/outdoor leader, who lives in Cullowhee, N.C. He is a Saranac Lake native and was a friend to both Porter and Seeger. 

“Pete’s playing his banjo on these recordings,” Knight said. “He came with a folklorist named Kenny Goldstein.”

Porter entrusted Knight with her field recordings including folk ballads, French-Canadian songs and fiddle music. He also has correspondence sent by Seeger.

“She didn’t keep everything,” Knight said. “In some ways she was a pack rat, and sometimes she didn’t keep stuff. I have a dozen letters and Christmas cards. She let me take a lot of her material for working on her book.”

SEEGER-PORTER CORRESPONDENCE

From 1970-74, he assisted Porter with editing her folk collection and is in the process of finishing a songbook of approximately 200 of the works. Porter’s manuscript collection is housed at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Special Collections. The Seeger-Porter correspondence will be there, eventually. 

“Pete was interested in the music and the Adirondacks, and Mrs. Porter was interested in getting her collection out there,” Knight said. “She arranged for two albums to be made from her collection.”

In 1960, Folkways Records released Seeger’s “Champlain Valley Songs.” Three years later, the Stinson label released Milt Okun’s “Adirondack Folk Songs and Ballads.”

The Seegers visited the Adirondacks frequently with their family, and when they did, they stopped to see Porter.

“One letter is from Toshi (Seeger’s wife), and she says, ‘I can’t believe how they’re grown,’” Knight said. “‘They were babes when we first met.’”

Knight has a dozen or so letters from Seeger and several from his wife.

“When Pete was traveling, she would answer his mail,” Knight said.

PERFORMS IN PLATTSBURGH

Seeger performed at a benefit concert at 8 p.m. May 8, 1965, at the Physical Education Building at SUNY Plattsburgh. More than 2,000 people were expected to attend, according to ET CETERA Editor Arnie Tucker in the May 7, 1965, edition of the college newspaper.

“Seeger volunteered to present this concert in honor of his good friends, Miss Marjorie Porter and the late Dr. George Yokum. Dr. Yokum, the popular SUCP music professor, and his wife, were killed in a tragic automobile accident in Canada,” according to the article.

“She (Porter) had already worked for Dr. Yokum and Dr. Engelhart,” said Sean Rosemeyer, another of Porter’s granddaughters, who lives in Chicago. Rosemeyer is a 1969 graduate of Plattsburgh High School.

“Part of Seeger’s concert was for the benefit of the Yokum children and half for Marjorie. I was at that live concert. I was about 14. I remember going with my mother and two brothers. It was an honor to have my grandmother honored by this world-famous folk singer.”

Porter, petite and weighing approximately 100 pounds, hauled a clunky Sound Scriber to do her field recordings.

“Pete Seeger presented her with the Wollensak, reel-to-reel tape recorder,” Rosemeyer said. “He presented her with that at the concert for her to continue her work recording.”

Seeger also performed a Lake Placid concert on July 5, 1971.

“It was just a regular concert,” said Knight, who performed professionally with Seeger half a dozen times. “It was held at the Lake Placid High School. The American Legion tried to get it canceled, and the school board held firm. I wrote a letter to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise about freedom of speech.”

Email Robin Caudell: rcaudell@pressrepublican.com