Archive for January 2014

Turn, Turn, Turn – Pete Seeger Is Gone

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

justpete

Today we honor Pete Seeger, the first and greatest of modern folk musicians. Pete did it all. What great talent and vision. We won’t see his like again.  Included here are a few film clips of him over the years that I think are really good.  Click Here to hear an interview I did with Pete in 2007 for Down Home Radio.

Pete Seeger invented being an urban folk singer in its modern incarnation.  All the strands that we see around us today he in a lot of ways did first, the traditional, the popular and progressive sounds, the political.  Pete was among the very first (maybe first?) people in the modern era from outside the tradition to learn thoroughly very traditional banjo playing and ballads from records, field recordings and firsthand sources in the South, and although initially an outsider ultimately give back to the tradition. He also played popular and classical music on the banjo and was very well versed in African-American music and 12-string guitar playing learned directly from Leadbelly among other sources.   He built on his experience of Woody Guthrie’s songs and style to make his own protest songs in an early modern singer-songwriter style which he invented and which also paved the way for later “Folk-Rock” stylings.  And as he broke through into the mass media with his band The Weavers and as a solo performer, Pete really invented the genre of “Folk Music” as a category within the field of Popular Music as a whole.  In fact, Pete’s father Charles Seeger, a founder of the field of Ethnomusicology, wrote on the subject, saying that in the modern era, folk and popular music would meld as isolated, local and traditional communities were brought under the influence of mass communication and rapid transit.

In the many pieces now being written in the press about Pete I often see it said that he “was a champion of justice, civil rights and the environment.”  That is very true, in addition to and in conjunction with music he was a committed and extraordinary social activist.  He was also a life long socialist, and someone who had a deep sense of compassion, fairness and respect for all people and communities.

His activities in the Civil Rights Movement, Peace Movement and Environmental Movement I have seen widely discussed.  But a major part of Pete Seeger’s legacy and the foundation of his identity as a musician and cultural worker, is his crucial involvement in and commitment to folk music.  Somehow this aspect of his life, which was of a piece with his other convictions, seems to be poorly understood in the mass media and is somehow always mentioned only in passing.  Pete Seeger CARED about folk music – music with a long history, made and perpetuated by regular rural people, played in a rough style and dealing with topics and gritty realities that pop music would never touch.

[“To Hear Your Banjo Play” – 1947 – narrated by Alan Lomax and featuring a young Pete Seeger and the only footage of Woody Guthrie in his prime.]

Pete Seeger personally did the fundamental work that popularized the repertoire and created the social context for folk music to persist in our modern mass culture society. For instance, in 1939 Pete operated the recording machine for Alan Lomax as he recorded the great banjo player Wade Ward, absolute bedrock recordings for anyone interested in playing real traditional old time banjo music.  But its much more than that…

First off, Pete Seeger invented the concept of “pop-folk,” with his band the Weavers, teaming up on their early records with producer Gordon Jenkins (who also worked with Frank Sinatra, etc… for Decca Records) to create a hybrid music of songs from the folk repertoire in a pop style that was usable by the mass culture industry of the time and became extremely popular. And secondly he pioneered the idea of mass group singing at concert events.  Pete literally sang together with millions of people over the course of his career.

Pete did the hard touring, taking him away from his wife Toshi and family, starting in the 1940’s and continuing for decades, that created from scratch the audience for Folk Music in modern post WWII America. Much of his work over the many years has been with children, at schools and summer camps, a field which few popular entertainers particularly in the early days, would touch.  These children grew up and became the folk music audience and folk musicians of the 1950’s, 60’s and on…

Urbanized or suburbanized people were and are used to experiencing music passively as commercial consumers of CDs, radio, etc.  Pete’s mass group singing at his concerts gave people who had lost a personal connection to making and experiencing music, a way to connect, feel good about their musical selves and be a part of a community.  He gave back to so many people, at least on a basic level, the chance to sing and make music together, a vital part of being human, even as “progress” has worked to alienate and isolate us.  Most were content to sing with Pete at the concerts but many many people also went home and picked up instruments and pursued making music themselves more proactively at different levels.


[Pete sings out against the Vietnam War on the Johnny Cash show with his song “Bring ‘Em Home.”]

What a talent.  That was what allowed him to breakthrough and operate in the visionary way that he did.  Pete Seeger had so much talent it was stunning.  He was completely unlike any other figure or “entertainer” in the field of American popular music.  He was and is the only person in the popular consciousness who cared about folk music, really knew what he was talking about in a very serious way and took that understanding to the stage in his performances.  He played at colleges, summer camps, big venues, benefit concerts, radio and television, everywhere.  Pete Seeger was also a founder of the Newport Folk Festival that presented so many great traditional artists and is also inextricably linked to the first and greatest independent record company devoted to American Folk Music, Moe Asch’s Folkways Records.  Without Pete, who knows if Folkways could have survived all these years?  He recorded dozens and dozens of albums for them, which remain among their biggest sellers, and have given them so much needed revenue over the years when most of their amazing recordings did not.

Pete was an intellectual and a theorist, as was his father, and was very widely read.  He also made films, field recordings and started the magazines People’s Songs and then its successor Sing Out! where he wrote columns, published songs and engaged in dialogue and journalism for years.  He produced and hosted the amazing television program “Rainbow Quest” and has also written several books, song books and banjo and guitar instructional manuals.

Pete Seeger is much more than a protest singer, although he was certainly that and in great form.  He was incredibly proactive and prolific.  When did he sleep?  In the few times that I got to meet and spend some time with him I found him totally unassuming, uninterested in stardom in anyway, without ego and yet extremely charming and compelling.  He was indeed very tall and slim, he had small eyes, a ready crooked smile, he drank buttermilk and even at an advanced age seemed youthful in a way.  You realized immediately upon talking with him that he was extremely smart, focused but also a serious dreamer, whose ideas many felt were impractical!  But a lot of them caught on in big ways… I think its possible to say that without Pete those of us working in the field of folk music today might not be here at all.  If folk music means something to you, then Pete Seeger lives on.

Here is a very good article that is worth reading from the New York Times:
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/29/arts/music/a-folk-revivalist-who-used-his-voice-to-bring-out-a-nations.html?_r=0

Here is a photo of Pete Seeger with Geoff and Lynette Wiley, owners of the Jalopy Theatre, New York’s best folk music venue, and myself at a Woody Guthrie tribute event at Brooklyn College in 2012.


Here is an excellent interview with Pete Seeger on the news program Democracy Now!

Here’s  a very nice piece about Pete Seeger written by Jeff Place, the archivist at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings: http://www.folkways.si.edu/PeteSeeger


Jon Pareles wrote two very nice pieces for the New York Times:
Using His Voice to Bring Out a Nation’s
Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94

And here is a good piece on the origins of the song, “We Shall Overcome,” which was another one of Pete Seeger’s great gifts to us all: https://portside.org/2014-01-29/we-shall-overcome-honoring-pete-seeger

Notes On “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Notes On “Inside Llewyn Davis”
(If you have not seen the movie, be warned there are spoilers below)

The Coen Brothers’ new film,  “Inside Llewyn Davis” is set in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of 1961 and is very loosely based on or inspired by the autobiography of the great folk singer Dave van Ronk.  I’ve been following the film closely because my band the Down Hill Strugglers has a song on the soundtrack album.  I also produce the Brooklyn Folk Festival, Washington Square Park Folk Festival and work at the Jalopy Theatre, the current home for folk music in New York City, and have always had an interest in the history of folk music in this place.

Now that the film is out in theaters and getting lots of press, people associated with the world of folk music here in New York have become very interested and are scrutinizing it because it is the first film to represent us and a seminal time in our history on the big screen.  I was born in Greenwich Village in 1982, so I certainly was not there in 1961, but everyone who I know who was there has serious criticisms of the depiction of that time and place as represented in the movie, regardless of whether they like the story and the film itself.  I think these criticisms are best made in Terri Thal’s (Dave van Ronk’s first wife, also his manager) article that was recently published in the Village Voice (at: http://www.villagevoice.com/authors/terri-thal/).

However, there are a few things going on in “Inside Llewyn Davis” that I haven’t seen discussed or really made plain anywhere so far.  One important point is that in the film the Llewyn Davis character (actor Oscar Isaac) sings nearly all traditional songs (all but one, which was written to be very traditional-like) and that even more than his dour personality and ill-luck, seems to doom his career and chances of earning a living as a musician.  The songs he sings are arranged and performed in a 60’s folk-like style but his repertoire, which in the film he tries hard not to compromise, is a meaningful and traditionally based one.  Here is a quote from Anthony Lane’s review in the New Yorker magazine (at: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2013/12/09/131209crci
_cinema_lane
), which I think misses the point:

“And here’s the thing, the masterstroke of the movie: Llewyn is very good, but he’s not great. The Coens could have made a film about a genius, just waiting to be dug up like a diamond. Indeed, in the closing minutes we see and hear the young Dylan at the back of a room. But Llewyn is a semiprecious stone, and that is the half-tragedy of his life.”

The character Llewyn Davis is in fact “great” by the standards of the music in the film, but he’s not a genius or not worthy because he’s not churning out his own hits and chooses to sing great old rural songs.  Llewyn’s musical style is very similar to that of his friends Jim and Jean in the film who are making it commercially, as I say the only real difference is that he does not write any of his own songs and the ones he does sing are sad morbid old songs and ballads, as so many great traditionals are.  His character sings in a way that is rather ungussied up but with the earnest and angsty quality which came out of 60’s folk music style and continues on today.  In real life there was significant difference between Dave van Ronk’s music and the real Jim and Jean’s music, although they both represented a 60’s style.  Van Ronk’s style was very individual and gritty, inspired by his interest in early Jazz and blues music, where as Jim and Jean’s was more generic “Folk” music of the time, although well played.

At one (anti-)climactic point in the film, Llewyn Davis sings a beautiful old ballad called “The Death of Queen Jane” which must be meaningful for him at that time given the context of the plot.  Davis has just found out that he has a child he didn’t know about because an ex-girlfriend carried her pregnancy to term.  He sings the song, which is about the Queen of England who dies in child-birth, but brings her baby into the world alive, as an audition for the Albert “Bud” Grossman promoter character in order to try to get a good gig or management, but Grossman replies, “I don’t see much money here.”  Is the song too sad, disturbing or hard to follow?  Is it too unoriginal?  Probably all of those things!  Llewyn Davis did not write the song, it is hundreds of years old and comes from a different place, but it strikes me as the viewer that the song must be very meaningful to him at that time in the film.  We are left wishing Llewyn had sung something more up, less sad, maybe original so that he could have gotten the gig, but instead he sang something that was pretty out there and maybe truer to where he was at than some song he could have tried to write…

Llewyn Davis’ repertoire as taken partly from the repertoire of Dave van Ronk and presented in the movie is very interesting and with further examination into its sources shows in a nutshell many of the strands that came together to make the folk music world of that time and place.  Davis’ music is related to my own field of “Old Time” music not so much in terms of his style in the film, but definitely in terms of several of his songs; “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” (also known as “Been All Around This World) is a great banjo song originally field recorded by folklorists who located traditional banjo players Rufus Crisp and Justis Begley in Kentucky, and also recorded in a popular version by Kentucky banjoist Grandpa Jones.  How did it get to the Village?  Which was Dave van Ronk’s source?  I don’t know.  Rufus Crisp, a possible source for “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” was also one of our sources for the song “The Roving Gambler” which my band recorded for the film’s soundtrack album.  Crisp was one of the very first Southern traditional banjo players to inform the playing and repertoire of New York musicians through his Library of Congress field recordings and visits by Pete Seeger, Stu Jamieson and others.  “The Death of Queen Jane” is a medieval English ballad collected by venerated folklorist Francis James Child and published in his seminal books of balladry.  The film gives scant coverage to rural folk songs in a rural “old time” style, and no coverage to blues music that was being learned and played in the Village at that time.   Only the woman who plays autoharp and sings a Carter Family song badly gives any nod to the presence of old time music, which was being played by a number of people at the time, including the New Lost City Ramblers. (more…)