Toshi Seeger, 91, co-founded Clearwater with Pete

Toshi Seeger.
Toshi Seeger.

BY ALBERT AMATEAU  |  Toshi Seeger, an organizer and homemaker who was largely responsible for the success of her husband, the folk singer Pete Seeger, died July 9 at their home in Beacon, N.Y., just nine days before the couple’s 70th wedding anniversary. She was 91.

Toshi helped produce many of Pete’s concerts and rarely got credit for them. For one Pete Seeger event she was listed as “chief cook and bottle washer.” Toshi did get credit as executive producer of the 2007 PBS documentary “Pete Seeger, The Power of Song,” which won an Emmy award.

Born in Munich, Germany, to a Japanese father and an American mother, Toshi Aline Ohta was 6 months old when her parents brought her to New York, where they made their home in Greenwich Village.

Her Japanese grandfather, who had translated Karl Marx into Japanese, had been ordered into exile from Japan for illegal support of the Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat Sen. But under Japanese law, a son could serve a father’s sentence and Toshi’s father, Takashi Ohta, volunteered.

A teenager when he had to leave Japan, Takashi Ohta traveled the world, working on British merchant ships and wherever else he could find work. He met Virginia Perry, an American, in Munich where they were married and where Toshi was born in 1922. Takashi Ohta first found work in New York as a caretaker for the Henry St. Settlement, according to a Washington Post article.

Raised in the Village, Toshi went to Little Red Schoolhouse on Bleecker St., the city’s first progressive education school, and then to the High School of Music and Art, where she was in the school’s first graduating class in 1940.

Toshi was 16 when she met Pete Seeger at a square dance. They were married in 1943 when Pete was in Army basic training in Mississippi. Pete didn’t have enough money to buy a ring, so Toshi borrowed her grandmother’s ring for the ceremony. She also lent Pete $3 for the marriage license, according to an article by Sue Leonard in the magazine Persimmon Tree.

Pete and Toshi moved to the Hudson River town of Beacon, N.Y., in 1949. They took shelter in a tent while they built their cabin, where they raised their son, Daniel, and two daughters, Mika and Tinya. The family lived for a time without electricity or running water.

In addition to raising the family, Toshi took an active part in the business side of Pete’s career as a folk singer. She helped organize the Great Hudson River Revival music festival and the annual Clearwater Campaign that raised money for the Hudson River sloop Clearwater. The campaign was one of the efforts that led to the clearing of PCB pollution from the river.

“Toshi-Aline Ohta Seeger co-founded Hudson River Sloop Clearwater with her husband, musician and activist Pete Seeger, in 1966,” Clearwater officials said in an obituary on the group’s Web site. “Toshi was involved with Clearwater in multiple ways from the organization’s beginnings and helped to steer the various folk concerts and events, including Pumpkin Sail and the early incarnations of the Clearwater Festival. She was active in the development of what has been known as the Great Hudson River Revival for 35 years, a music and environmental festival that welcomes over 20,000 visitors to Croton Point Park in Westchester County, N.Y., each year.”

In 1949 she suggested key participants in the first Newport Jazz Festival, according to George Wein, the festival organizer.

In 1966 Toshi, Pete and their son Daniel visited a prison in Huntsville, Tex., along with the folklorist Bruce Jackson to make the acclaimed documentary film “Afro American Work Songs in a Texas Prison.”

When Pete Seeger was charged with contempt in the 1960s for refusing to name Communist associates, Toshi brought their three children to court. Pete was sentenced to a year in jail but did not serve it because the case was thrown out on appeal. Toshi quipped at the time. “Next time no appeal. Let him go to jail.”

In addition to Pete, who is 94, and their three children, six grandchildren and a great-grandchild also survive. Her first child, Peter, died in 1944 when he was 6 months old.

A memorial service for Toshi is planned for the fall, time and place to be announced.

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