Rik Palieri has an unusual pen pal. The 58-year-old Vermont folk singer dutifully keeps all of his correspondence from the past 30 years in a finely bound scrapbook. (His wife, Marianna Holzer, is a professional bookbinder.) The collection includes more than 70 messages, yellowing letters both handwritten and typed, and dozens of dog-eared postcards sent from all over the country.
“Pete was really into postcards for a time,” says Palieri as he pages through the hefty book, which sits on a coffee table in the living room of his cozy home in rural Hinesburg. Beyond a picture window, late-day light glints off distant Lake Iroquois, just visible through a thick grove of brown, yellow and orange trees.
“Pete” is American folk-music icon Pete Seeger. Palieri is looking for one letter in particular: a two-page missive from Seeger that Palieri says is the foundation of his own latest, and perhaps greatest, project.
He flips page after cellophane-covered page, pausing occasionally on old pictures that accompany many of the letters. There’s one of Seeger and a heavily sideburned Palieri onstage at a festival in upstate New York. There’s a snapshot of them singing together in front of a fireplace in Seeger’s cabin in Beacon, N.Y. There’s a news clipping from a gig they played in Palieri’s native New Jersey.
Then he finds what he’s looking for.
“Ah, here it is,” Palieri says, pointing to a typewritten letter dated August 9, 1983.
“Dear Rik,” it begins. “Thanks for your letter and the fascinating enclosure. I think it’s one hell of a good idea.”
“And that’s how this whole crazy thing started,” says Palieri, grinning beneath his bushy, graying mustache.
Palieri has recently returned from realizing the “hell of a good idea” he first pitched to Seeger 30 years ago. It was a 9000-mile trip in which he and New York folk singer George Mann recreated a 1941 tour of American labor-union halls by a short-lived band called the Almanac Singers.
Little has been publicly documented about the Almanacs, at least in comparison with the reams written on the group’s most famous members, Seeger and Woody Guthrie. But Palieri says the cultural, musical and political ripples its famous tour created among subsequent generations of folkies are crucial pieces of American music history. In fact, of American history, period.
“It was a very important time for folk music,” says Palieri. He adds that he’s just finished reading The Mayor of MacDougal Street, the Dave Van Ronk autobiography (written with Elijah Wald) that serves as the partial basis for the new Coen brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. The book and film are set in New York City during the folk boom of the early 1960s.
“This was way before that. It was the first surge of people using their music as a weapon,” says Palieri of the Almanac Singers’ tour. “That’s why Woody Guthrie had that sticker on his guitar: ‘This Machine Kills Facists.’ Because in that old lyrical Left, you were using music as a weapon of change, trying to get people to wake up.”
For Palieri, the tour — and the subsequent record, The Almanac Trail, that he and Mann made to commemorate the project — are crowning achievements in his quietly brilliant career. Cut from similar tattered cloth to elder hobo minstrels Seeger and Guthrie, Palieri has toured the world many times over. As “Totem Pole” Rik Palieri — a nickname that references both the instruments he “totes” around and his Polish heritage — he penned a book in 2003 chronicling his life and travels: The Road Is My Mistress: Tales of a Roustabout Songster.
Palieri has recorded six solo albums and is in regular rotation on folk-centric radio stations around the globe. He appeared on the compilation Singing Through the Hard Times: A Tribute to Utah Phillips, in honor of his old friend and mentor. The comp was nominated for a 2009 Grammy. Palieri keeps the paper certificate acknowledging that nomination on his living room wall, where it is crowded in by more interesting cultural knickknacks and memorabilia he’s picked up on his travels — photos, tribal jewelry and handmade instruments, almost all of them gifts.
“I guess they only give you the little statue when you win,” he jokes.
Since 1999, Palieri has hosted a cable access television show on Burlington’s Vermont Community Access Media, “The Songwriter’s Notebook.” There he interviews and performs with like-minded songsters, from locals to internationally known performers such as Seeger, Phillips, Tom Paxton and the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Dom Flemons. The volumes of tapes and DVDs of that show were recently acquired by the American Folklife Center for permanent collection at the Library of Congress.
But for Palieri, none of these accomplishments and accolades has quite the emotional heft of completing the Almanac Trail. That tour was the realization of a dream 30 years in the making, and a career-defining endeavor that began, quite simply, with a letter from a precious friend.
Rik Palieri and Pete Seeger, 1980s
How do I know my youth is all spent?
My get up and go has got up and went
But in spite of it all
I’m able to grin
And think of the places my get up has been.
— “Get Up and Go” by Pete Seeger (1960)
Palieri’s music career almost didn’t happen. “The thing was, I had tried a lot of musical instruments as a youngster, and none of them worked,” he says. “I was at the point that I didn’t know if I was meant to play music. And then I started hearing the sound of a banjo.
“There was no banjo around,” he continues. “I just kept hearing this sound, and to this day I really don’t know why.”
Possessed by the otherworldly strains of a phantom banjo, a 15-year-old Palieri went to a local music store in his hometown of Newark, N.J., and bought How to Play the 5-String Banjo, written by none other than Pete Seeger. He did not, however, buy a banjo.
“I practiced by tapping on my school desktop, or on my pillow,” Palieri says with his signature high chuckle. “I practiced on anything that I could make believe [was] a banjo.”
To save money to buy an actual instrument, Palieri practiced a time-honored method of righteous protest: the hunger strike.
“I realized my only income was my lunch money,” he explains. “So I basically didn’t eat until I had enough money.”
Soon, his hunger for food transferred to music. Palieri began religiously watching Seeger’s television show at the time, “Rainbow Quest.” He began reading the old folkie’s books and consuming all things Seeger.
“He became my role model,” Palieri says. “In high school, all my friends were playing rock and roll, and I was thinking about banjos.”
Eventually, he confessed to his mother that he had been squirreling away his lunch money in pursuit of a banjo. Seeing how serious he was, she gave him the rest of the cash, and Palieri purchased a secondhand instrument from a newspaper classified ad.
“I still have it,” Palieri says, pointing to a battered old Gibson Mastertone leaning in a far corner. “My lunch-money banjo.”
It was then that Palieri wrote the first of his letters to Seeger, never expecting a reply.
“But he wrote me back,” says the Vermonter, a trace of surprise still in his voice some 40 years later. “He said, ‘I’m kind of busy. But someday I’m sure we’ll meet.’ That’s what stuck with me: ‘Someday I’m sure we’ll meet.’”
A few years later, in August 1975, Seeger was giving a concert in New York City’s Central Park with the late Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo. Palieri had gone to the park early, while his mother took his two younger sisters, Tina and Lisa, to a museum with plans to meet afterward. Upon arriving at the concert later, they couldn’t find Rik.
“My sister Lisa, who was only 10 or 11 at the time, she got the idea that, because of all the albums around the house, I must be really close with Pete Seeger; I must be backstage with him,” Palieri recalls. “They wandered over to the guard and told him that their brother was backstage with Pete Seeger, so he brought them in.”
Palieri was nowhere to be found, but, unbeknownst to him at the time, his sisters spent the afternoon in the company of Pete and his wife, Toshi Seeger.
The very next day, at another festival in Hoboken, N.J., Palieri was jamming with some friends when Seeger walked up and joined in. After a song or two, Seeger took notice of the starstruck kid with a banjo.
“Rik?” Seeger asked. Palieri nodded.
“I met your sisters yesterday,” Seeger told a stunned Palieri. “They told me you’re a wonderful banjo player. Why don’t you come onstage, and we’ll play a few tunes together?”
“My whole life changed at that moment,” Palieri says.
A week later, Seeger called Palieri and invited him to join his Hudson River Sloop Clearwater organization, an environmental group he had founded with his wife. Palieri was enlisted to help run festivals, which introduced him to a vast network of folk musicians. He joined Seeger’s Sloop Singers and toured up and down the Hudson on the titular Clearwater, the 106-foot wooden sailing sloop that has come to symbolize the river’s rebirth under Seeger’s guidance.
“That was our tour bus,” says Palieri, winking beneath the brim of his black cowboy hat.
As has happened with many rambling folkies, Palieri’s life would soon twist and turn with the wind. He spent a year in a remote village in Poland, learning the Polish bagpipes. He moved to Vermont, following his love to the Green Mountains. He made records. He crisscrossed the country in a Toyota truck with a camper bed, playing schools and bars and grange halls and Native American reservations. He forged a career, in fact, modeled on that of his idol-turned-mentor, Pete Seeger. But the call of the Almanac Trail remained.
“Something about the idea of these four guys going from union hall to union hall and singing across the United States really appealed to the wanderlust that I’ve always had,” says Palieri.
He made a few meager attempts at recreating the tour, but they all failed. “I was too young. I didn’t have the contacts, and the unions weren’t interested,” Palieri admits. In his 1983 letter, Seeger had warned Palieri that the unions would resist.
“Your big job is to get through the opposition of the businessmen types that control the labor unions now,” wrote Seeger. “They are going to try and discourage you and also, more importantly, discourage the people who would like to hire you to come and sing for them.”
Palieri was indeed discouraged. But every now and then he would reread that heartening letter from Seeger, waiting for the right moment.
“I let it sit for a long time … until I met George,” he says.
Palieri and Bruce Springsteen
But out in Detroit here’s what they found,
And out in Frisco here’s what they found,
And out in Pittsburgh here’s what they found,
And down in Bethlehem here’s what they found,
That if you don’t let
Red-baiting break you up,
If you don’t let stool pigeons break you up,
If you don’t let vigilantes break you up,
And if you don’t let race hatred break you up —
What I mean, Take it easy — but take it!
— “Talking Union” by Millard Lampell, Lee Hays and Pete Seeger (1941)
American folklorists have canonized Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, but, in 1941, not a lot of people knew who they were. And the general public paid little attention at the time to the Almanac Singers’ activities.
“They hadn’t really become famous yet,” explains Palieri’s tour mate, George Mann, by phone from his New York home. “They were more committed to the political stuff with the unions than they were to making records.”
Guthrie had begun to make a name for himself in New York and Los Angeles, and he did not appear on the Almanac Singers’ 1941 debut album, Songs for John Doe. He was in Oregon at the time it was recorded, writing songs for the Bonneville Power Administration — and penning some of his most enduring songs, including “Pastures of Plenty” and “Roll On Columbia.”
Guthrie joined the Almanacs later that summer, mostly because he was intrigued by the idea of touring in support of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a union federation, with Seeger, Millard Lampell and Lee Hays. (Hays would later join Seeger in the seminal folk band the Weavers.)
“The first thing to remember is that he was 27 years old,” says Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and the overseer of the Woody Guthrie Foundation in New York City. “He was curious,” she continues in a recent phone call. “And that curiosity was a very powerful element in him that led him along various trails.
“Our family joke was that he would go out for a pack of cigarettes and come back two weeks later,” Guthrie says of her father. “But it wasn’t wanderlust for the sake of impatience; it was born out of curiosity.”
Nora Guthrie adds that the explosive and often violent political climate of the late 1930s and early ’40s informed many of her father’s activities, including joining the Almanacs.
“The country was a hotbed for political activity,” she says. “People are coming out of the Depression, the Dust Bowl, the drought. It was a hot time for America in every way. And union organizing was the most important thing that was going on. For the first time, American workers were forming unions. Everybody was talking union. And he created the music that supported that activity.”
Woody Guthrie also created the music that would capture the hearts and minds of folk singers such as Palieri and Mann generations later.
Before meeting Palieri through a mutual friend in 2012, Mann had been an organizer in a musician’s union and a communications union in New York. His own work, including several anti-Bush records and collaborations with famed pro-union songwriter Julius Margolin, gave him the experience and, more importantly, the union contacts to make the Almanac tour work at last.
“All of a sudden, this dream that was deferred came to life,” Palieri describes.
Palieri again sought out Seeger. During an interview in 2012 at Seeger’s home, he picked the elder folk singer’s brain for everything he could remember about the Almanac Singers. Palieri later discovered that Seeger had left out many important details during that hours-long conversation. He needed another interview, but given the demands on both singers’ time, scheduling one proved problematic. The only window was a two-hour break between doctors’ appointments for Seeger and his wife in May of this year. Toshi passed away in July.
“The only way to do it was to meet him at a doctor’s appointment,” says Palieri. “So we sat in my truck for two hours and talked. It was a beautiful thing.”
Snippets of those conversations appear on The Almanac Trail CD, with Seeger recalling memories of the tour and its players and contextualizing their songs.
Between the interviews, Palieri made a pilgrimage to the Woody Guthrie Archives in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., where he stayed with Nora Guthrie and her husband, Michael Kleff. Palieri says he was overwhelmed by the collection of Woody’s original notes, journals and songbooks.
“You’re piecing together this puzzle of what took place in 1941,” he says. “I felt like I was transported back in time, because Woody was writing about it in such vivid detail.”
Guthrie’s writings gave Palieri a literal and figurative road map. He and Mann plotted a 9000-mile course, with 28 shows in five weeks. They hit the road in late July 2013 in a cramped Ford Focus — union-made, of course.
“It was the hardest tour I’ve ever done in my life,” says Palieri.
The Almanac Singers traveled from Pittsburgh to California, where Palieri says the band “kind of broke up.” But Seeger and Guthrie continued on, touring through the Pacific Northwest, then to Butte, Mont., and eventually to Buffalo, N.Y. Palieri and Mann retraced both trips. Much as the Almanacs did, the two singers endured makeshift accommodations along the way, sleeping mostly on the couches and floors of strangers.
“We wanted to create that same kind of feeling,” Palieri says. “It’s impossible in some ways. But because we were traveling that same route, and telling the stories of what happened in 1941, after a while you really felt as close as you could get to reliving a moment.”
The Almanac Singers were a notoriously loose group whose fluctuating ranks included nearly 20 members over their three-year existence, including Sis Cunningham, Burl Ives and others. In a 1999 interview with Palieri for “The Songwriter’s Notebook,” Seeger called the group “very sloppy performers,” adding that Guthrie used to joke that the band only rehearsed when they got onstage. Often during the 1941 tour, they would invite singers and players from whatever town they happened to be in to join them. Some of those players would latch on for longer stretches.
“When Pete and Woody were out for the second leg of the tour, there were a lot of people who were honorary Almanac Singers for a day or two,” Palieri says. He and Mann honored that tradition, inviting folk singers such as Anne Feeney and Larry Penn along for portions of the trip.
In San Francisco, the duo played for the Harry Bridges ILWU Local 10, a longshore workers union in San Francisco for whom the Almanac Singers had performed. In attendance were several people who remembered seeing them 72 years earlier.
“I have to say it was a gray-haired audience,” concedes Palieri. “But they came and told us stories about what it was like to see [the Almanacs], what it was like to see Woody Guthrie.”
Palieri says that a woman in Berkeley claimed to have seen Guthrie and co. when she was a child. She recalled being transfixed by the diminutive singer’s “tiny, tapping feet.”
“She said she remembers the sheer joy he had when he played,” says Palieri.
So, if two middle-aged folk singers walk in the footsteps of giants and dust off old labor songs, does that amount to anything more than a pet project, a historical curiosity? Surely the impact of Mann and Palieri’s tour couldn’t be as profound as was the original Almanac Singers’ rabble rousing.
On the contrary, Palieri says the Almanacs’ message, captured in classic songs such as “Union Maid,” “Which Side Are You On?” and “I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister,” is as relevant as ever. Consider the present state of labor accord around the country: the Wisconsin labor protests of 2011, the current Walmart strikes in Ohio, the still-looming shadow of the Occupy Wall Street movement. “It was exciting because of the timing of now,” says Palieri, noting recent declines in membership of American unions. “[The tour] wouldn’t have been as important in 1983.
“The rights that we have today were not given to us by the bosses,” he says. “They were fought for, tooth and nail, sometimes with people’s lives.
“We’re at a point where some things that we take for granted, like paid vacations, working an eight-hour day — all of those things could disappear if people don’t realize and honor where those rights came from,” Palieri adds. “That was part of our job, to remind people what unions are all about.”
And to remind people where all those old union songs came from.
“These songs have been sung in labor halls for years,” Palieri says. “What people don’t realize is where they came from. And it all goes back to the Almanacs.”
He notes that Seeger also has a motto around the ring of his banjo, albeit gentler than Guthrie’s famous fascist-slaying creed: “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender.”
“It’s the same thing: using music as a tool to bring about peace,” Palieri says. “That’s what the Almanacs believed. If they could get the people in the unions singing, that’s the first step to bringing peace and brotherhood into the world.”
Since the tour ended in August, Palieri says, he has been contacted by unions all over the country asking him and Mann to do the Almanac Trail show again.
“The seeds have been planted,” he says.
All photos courtesy of Rik Palieri, except top photo by Matthew Thorsen.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Sticking to the Union"