WILKES-BARRE — Don Shappelle remembers cleaning up around the Hudson River and sailing on Pete Seeger’s boat — the Sloop Woody Guthrie.
Shappelle, 58, a singer/songwriter from Wilkes-Barre, remembered his friend Tuesday. Seeger, the legendary folk singer and environmental activist, died Monday at the age of 94.
Shappelle first met Seeger in 1981 at the Beacon Sloop Club, Seeger’s favorite spot along the Hudson, the area he called home. Shappelle was living in New York City and decided this day to take a commuter train to Beacon, N.Y., and it dropped him off near the Sloop Club.
“I went into the Sloop Club, and there he was,” Shappelle recalled. “He was picking up trash and cleaning up. He was doing what he always did — taking care of the area.”
So Shappelle walked up to the man he admired, the man he considered his mentor and role model.
“I introduced myself and he said, ‘Nice to meet you,’ ” Shappelle said. “I was in awe.”
From there, a friendship born of music and a mutual love and respect of the environment grew.
Shappelle has been writing and playing music most of his life. His collection of guitars sort of chronicles his career and his musical interests. And, oh, there is a banjo in the collection — sort of a tribute to Seeger and his passion for political activism that was so much a part of his legendary 70-year career.
Folk music legend
Seeger wrote hundreds of songs, classics such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “If I had a Hammer” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” He is referred to as the founder of folk music and renowned for his passion for using song to inspire change.
Shappelle first heard him in concert in 1975 in Philadelphia. Six years later, Shappelle found himself shaking hands with Seeger in Beacon.
“There are so many memories,” Shappelle said. “I wrote a song — ‘The Tugboat Song’ — while I was sailing on the Hudson River with Pete on his Sloop Woody Guthrie,” Shappelle said. “Pete listened and he scratched his white beard and said, ‘I think you have a hit song there, Donnie.’ I’ll never forget that moment.”
As their friendship grew, Shappelle said he always admired Seeger for his constant concern for the Hudson River Valley.
“He was always doing chores,” Shappelle said. “He recruited me to be another worker. He put me to work to clean up around the river.”
He said every time he was with Seeger, it was a good experience.
“He was always glad to greet you and talk,” he said. “Pete was like that with everybody.”
Shappelle became a part of the Clear Water Organization, made up of like-minded people who cared about the environment.
“I just became part of a great bunch of people,” Shappelle said. “We sang songs, held concerts, had picnics and always did river cleanups. I just became a part of the whole scene.”
Shappelle said he forged many lasting friendships at the Beacon Sloop Club. And he met famous people such as Don McLean, Arlo Guthrie and Abbie Hoffman.
“But most of us were common people with a common purpose of singing and cleaning up the Hudson River,” Shappelle said.
Shappelle spent a lot of time with Seeger, working on wood boats, talking and singing songs.
He last saw Seeger about four years ago at the Hudson River Sloop Singers Reunion Concert. It was a 20th anniversary concert of an album called “Broad Ole River.” Shappelle’s “The Tug Boat Song” is on that album.
“That was the last time I performed with Pete,” Shappelle said. “What he taught me most, I think, was how music can really change the world. And not just music, but how your actions can change the world. He wasn’t about changing the world in a big way. Pete wanted to do it one neighborhood at a time. And I saw him do that.”
But for a guy who was known all over the world and who was a friend of many celebrities and world leaders, Shappelle said, Seeger most enjoyed his time along the Hudson.
“Many famous people called Pete their friend,” he said. “But I think he enjoyed spending time around the Hudson River, picking up trash and putting on concerts and changing the world a little at a time.”
As Shappelle talked about Seeger, one could sense the emotion of losing a close friend.
“Sure I’m sad,” he said. “Even though he was 94, it’s still a huge loss. And Pete lived such a full life. He was a great human being. The world is in need of people like Pete Seeger. He would do anything for anybody.”
Seeger’s voice and his banjo are silent today. But his message that he spread around the world will live on through his music and through so many voices like Shappelle’s.
Shappelle often performs in Maryland in the Chesapeake Bay area. He does concerts to support the last fleet of working sailboats that dredge for oysters in the bay. He said Seeger would be proud.
“This is his influence on me,” Shappelle said.
Then there was the time Shappelle was visiting Seeger at his cabin in the mountains above Beacon. Seeger told him Mary Travers of the famous folk group Peter, Paul and Mary was coming for a visit and he should stick around.
“I couldn’t stay,” Shappelle said. “I had to get home. I had to say no to an opportunity to meet another legend.”
Shappelle said getting to know Seeger has been a privilege and he will miss his friend.
“I’m happy that his message has spread to so many people of many generations,” he said. “People of all ages who have taken on his way of doing things — cleaning up rivers and neighborhoods one at a time.
“The world we live in is in much better shape because of Pete Seeger.”