FOLK SINGER AND SONGWRITER
A remembrance of Pete Seeger, January 28, 2014 by Stephen Winick from the Library of Congress American Folklife Center.
THE FIRST TIME I EVER MET "KING"
On July 22, 2011, Seeger sat down with Joe Mosnier to do an oral history interview for the Civil Rights History Project and remembered these moments: Tracing the Long Journey of “We Shall Overcome”
When venerable American folk artist Pete Seeger died recently, our world lost a musical virtuoso famed for original compositions like “If I Had a Hammer,” as well as renditions of classics like “Home on the Range” that connected newer generations with their cultural heritage. Grammy winner, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, civil-rights activist and folklorist par excellence: Mr. Seeger was renowned in many spheres. Less well known, however, was his advocacy on behalf of indigenous peoples and local communities around the world who seek better control over their traditional knowledge, traditional cultural expressions and genetic resources.
Seeger's words to WIPO
Even our work here at WIPO caught Mr. Seeger’s attention. In April 2006, a statement Mr. Seeger had prepared was presented to the WIPO Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC), 9th session, by Mat Callahan. Mr. Callahan, a musician speaking as a representative of Music in Common, an accredited observer to the IGC, built upon Seeger’s then-novel ideas for a United Nations Public Domain Commission to share royalties of copyrighted folk songs with the “place and people where the song originated.”
Pete Seeger - "Forever Young"
Pete Seeger Banjo Head in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Music is Dangerous
"I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this." Pete Seeger, 1955, testimony pursuant to subpoena before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
I will be glad to tell what songs I have ever sung, because singing is my business. . . . But I decline to say who has ever listened to them, who has written them, or other people who have sung them.
Pete Seeger was born to a musicologist and a music teacher, both faculty members of the Juilliard School in New York, NY. Music and activism blended naturally for Seeger, who at sixteen saw a performance that has since directed his life. "In 1935 I was sixteen years old, playing tenor banjo in the school jazz band. I was uninterested in the classical music which my parents taught at Juilliard. That summer I visited a square dance festival in Asheville, North Carolina, and fell in love with the old-fashioned five-string banjo, rippling out a rhythm to one fascinating song after another." "I liked the rhythms," Seeger said. "I liked the melodies, time tested by generations of singers. Above all, I liked the words."
Definition of Folk music - The music is "played to celebrate harvest festivals, weddings, the raising of houses, and other community events".
The origin of the phrase "folk process" has been attributed to musician Pete Seeger.
Seeger himself claims to have learned the phrase from his musicologist father, Charles Seeger. See "In praise of creative freedom 2 – 'That Song of the Gypsy Davy'," "Pete Seeger on the Folk Process," "You Can Never Tell: A Conversation with Pete Seeger," and "Folk Music, the Public Domain, and the Cultural Commons," among others.
The action Seeger was labeling had originally been described by late 19th-early 20th century music historian Cecil Sharp in his book English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions. Sharp describes the evolution of the folksong and folktale (Seeger's "folk process") as encompassing three principles: that of continuity, variation, and selection. "Continuity" refers to the idea that, in the norm, "types" (or motifs, themes, narratives, etc) should remain constant, and variation should be considered the exception; "variation" refers to the phenomenon of changes being introduced to folksongs by singers, whether unconsciously or with intent to change for artistic reasons, reasons of preference, or for the hiding of errors; "selection" refers to the theory that "the musical taste of every community must vary, and, as that taste is the controlling factor in the evolution of the folk-song, national peculiarities must ultimately determine the specific characteristics of the folk-songs of the different nations." Sharp, English Folk-Song, pgs 16, 21, 24-25, 29
The most accessible definitions of folk process
Seeger's description of the folk process and his view of its history, transcribed by Katherine Macdonald.
BARDS ARE THE OFFICIAL STORY TELLERS
"In ancient days, all the men knew the same hunting songs, and all the women knew the same lullaby. Then, when agriculture was invented, then class society developed and you have priesthood and aristocracy that owned the land, and now they could afford to have, for example, music made for them. And this was the beginning of high art. Talented professionals would spend their whole lives creating the most elegant culture they could -- if you want to use that word. The ordinary person, 99 percent of the population probably, could look at this and admire it from afar, but in their daily life they kept on making their own music, doing their own sewing, constructing their own houses and telling their own stories, usually without the benefit of any writing paper.
"Then beginning somewhere in the last thousand years I guess, maybe more or less, cities began to be developed where musicians, for example, could pick up coins in the market place, and this was the beginning of pop culture. Pop culture borrowed from the folk culture in the villages and it borrowed from the fine arts culture in the castle, and still occupies kind of a middle ground, but within the last century pop art is suddenly expanded with the help of tape recording and all the other things. It's taken over the world. So it's hard to say if there's any true folk culture left. At the same time you can see there are elements of the folk process still at work, where people will whistle a tune they've heard, or dance to a tune, or hum it or even sing it, but don't have the benefit of the big orchestra going on with them, and they may change a note here or a word there unconsciously, without quite realizing what they've done . . . and this is my hope. My father, who's an old musicologist, he spent a lifetime trying to analyze the history of music, he said, 'Rather than mourn the loss of ancient gold, let us consider its permutation into another metal, which although it might be baser, might surprise us in the end.'"
Although Seeger left Harvard during his second year, in the spring of 1996 he was awarded the Harvard Arts Medal, presented annually to a Harvard graduate who has made an important contribution to the arts.
Pete Seeger talks about The Almanac Singers
Pete Seeger, in a conversation with Tim Robbins for Pacifica Radio (2006), talks about The Almanac Singer, Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, John Handcox, Theodore Dreiser, Alan Lomax, Millard Lampell, raising money for records (Songs for John Doe), The Daily Worker, Folkways reissue of "Talking Union" with additional recordings by The Songswappers (including Mary Travers, Erik Darling), Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Truman etc., and sings (parts of) "Why Do You Stand There In The Rain?" and "The Strange Death of John Doe" (model for Bob Dylan's "Man On The Street").
Pete Seeger and the Roots of Woodstock includes Eleanor Walden - Pete Seeger donated concert proceeds from an August gig at the Woodstock Playhouse to help fund the festival. According to the program there were square and folk dances, demonstrations, dulcimer-making workshops, storytelling and a hootenanny. The model for the festival was to bring country traditional singers and city topical-political songwriters into the same arena to share influences. Altogether there were nine co-founders and organizers. They included folksingers Eleanor Walden, Mona and Frank Fletcher, Sonia Malkine, Billy Faier, producer Bill Hoffman and folklorist Sam Eskin. Pete and the co-founders mentioned above, plus Barbara Moncure, Harry Siemsen, Squire Elwyn Davis, and recording artists Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Hedy West and Native American singer/songwriter Peter LaFarge, all performed during the festival.
UAW-CIO Makes the Army Roll and Go
Wartime song by Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers praising the then-Communist-run UAW. Notable for its stark contrast to the antiwar Songs for John Doe, it was later a favorite of the SDS and new left to poke fun at the patriotic streak of the Communist Party.
We Shall Overcome ( If My Jesus Wills aka We Shall Overcome Written by Louise Shropshire Explained by Pete Seeger weshallovercomefoundation.org/weshallovercome.html
Pete Seegar Wrote Turn Turn Turn
started in 1947 by Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman and Pete Seeger and inspired the commercial "folk boom" that followed them in the 1950s and 1960s. They were placed under FBI surveillance and blacklisted by the US government during the McCarthy era. The Weavers were targeted because of their history of singing protest songs and folk songs favoring labor unions as well as for the leftist political beliefs of the individuals in the group. Pete Seeger continued his solo career after the Weavers disbanded in 1952. In 1955, the group reunited to play a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, a venue whose management was unaware of the controversy surrounding the group. The concert was a huge success, a recording of which was issued by Vanguard Records and led to their signing to that record label (by the late 1950s, folk music was becoming popular and anti-communism was fading). Seeger left the group to return to his solo career, and the Weavers continued without him. After Eric Darling left the group, he was replaced by Frank Hamilton and then, briefly, the very young Bernie Krause.
Bernie Krause coined Biophony
which describes that portion of the soundscape contributed by nonhuman creatures. Biophony, Bernie Krause has theorized, is unique to each place; nowhere in nature sounds exactly like anywhere else. This idea has led him toward a controversial way of thinking that would broaden the scope of todays evolutionary biology.
[ why children sing ] Bernie Krause plays with the Weavers
Naturalist and sound recordist Dr. Bernie Krause first surfaced during the early '60s as Pete Seeger's replacement in the legendary folk group the Weavers; by the middle of the decade he was working as a staff producer at Elektra Records, in 1968 teaming with jazz musician Paul Beaver to record the LP The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music, a groundbreaking excursion into experimental sounds and textures which made innovative use of early synthesizers.
Pete Seeger the Communist and his First Amendment Defense.
The World's Most Incredible Communist
I think there needs to be a little clarification on Pete Seeger's First Amendment defense. The House Coummittee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was conducting an inquiry on "Communism in the entertainment industry" and subpoenaed Pete and fellow-member of the Weavers Lee Hays, both of whom had been members of the Communist Party USA in years past. Pete had left the party a few years earlier; I don't know when Lee left.
The Committee's questions mostly bore on a single pair of issues: for what groups, Communist-linked or otherwise, had Pete performed, and what people had he known who were Communists. In other words, he was being asked to "name names" to add further cannon fodder for the ongoing witch-hunt. He told his lawyer that he was willing to admit his former membership in the party -- he wasn't ashamed of it -- but he was unwilling to discuss other people, or groups who had hired him. His grounds under the First Amendment were subtle, because the amendment guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion (and freedom from a state-established religion), and the freedom to assemble and petition for redress of grievances. It does not specifically guarantee freedom of association or a right of privacy, but those were central to Pete's position. He believed (still believes) that he has the right to sing for whomever he chooses, and that no govenmental agency has the legitimate power to demand that he say for whom he has sung. Nor Pete asserted, do they have the legitimate power to inquire into the political associations of anyone.
As I said, freedom of association and a right of privacy are not explicitly guaranteed, but the theory behind's Pete's beliefs was that they were implicit in the explicitly declared rights, particularly those of speech and petition.. As the Supreme Court put it in a much later, unrelated case, the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment possess "penumbras", rights which are implied by the Amendment without being explicitly stated. As usual Pete was ahead of his time. (The case in which the idea was explicitly stated by the Supreme Court was Griswold vs. Connecticut, in which the court found that a state law against contraceptives violated a right of privacy that existed as a penumbra to the First Amendment. Griswold, in turn, was the major precedent cited in Roe vs. Wade, which found the laws then regulating abortions in America unconstitutional.)
Having refused to answer the committee's questions about his associations without invoking the Fifth Amendment, which protects against self-incrimination, Pete was cited for contempt of Congress, tried, convicted, and sentenced to a year in prison. He got out on bail pending appeal (after spending an afternoon in jail, during which he learned a folksong from one of his fellow inmates); the conviction and sentence were eventually voided on technical grounds.
The Library of Congress pays tribute to one of America's most enduring musical legacies in a two-day celebration entitled How Can I Keep From Singing? A Seeger Family Tribute, from March 15-16, 2007
The Seegers sang with their children most Saturday nights. Mike learned the old ballad Barbara Allen at age five from the singing of his musicologist/composer parents. Soon he graduated to listening and learning from their collection of early documentary recordings. He began playing instruments in his late teens, learning first from nearby musicians such as his close friend Elizabeth Cotten, and later seeking out other master stylists like guitarist Maybelle Carter, banjoists Dock Boggs, Cousin Emmy, and autoharpist Kilby Snow. Eventually Mike's love for traditional music led him to produce documentaries - more than twenty five field recordings and videos - and to organize countless tours and concerts featuring traditional musicians and dancers. Founding member of the pioneering traditional music group, The New Lost City Ramblers.
Peggy's formal music education was interwoven with her family's interest in traditional music.
2006 Bruce Springsteen's record company, with a massive PR and marketing push, is about to release "The Boss'" take on 13 songs associated with Pete Seeger. "Seeger Sessions" previews
Where this fits in a folk music or in a folklorist's framework?
- Folk revivalist -- in some ways, parallel to Seeger, except that Seeger came to the music at a much earlier age, and was deeply influenced by his folklorist father.
The other main difference is that Seeger's revival performances are much influenced by source performers, whereas Springsteen's are, presumably, influenced primarily by Seeger's performances, so he'd be a second-generation folk revivalist, an additional step removed from the indigenous performers.
Mulling over it, in fact, this may be an important distinction to draw in examining the folk revival: between performers who listen primarily to source performers (or get material from them indirectly, e.g. via a Cecil Sharp book) and performers who listen primarily to other revival performers,and get their material there.
- "source singers," a piece of lived community experience.
"revival singers" there may be a distinction between "folksong" and "art song."
- You know I'm not quite in agreement with you over a definition of 'folk' versus 'traditional' music. If I understand you correctly, you take them to be the same thing; I see them as two places in a long continuum, with Beowulf at one end and Madonna at the other. The Child Ballads I take to be traditional; Madonna, not yet. (This is not to say that there is no utility to your thinking: it is one of the cleverer constructions I have come across to say that if people are not afraid to change the piece, that is enough to make it 'folk'. There's a lot of wisdom there; but my training is anthropological and my purpose here is heuristic with a view toward system).
That said, long story short, I think it's terrific. If Pete defines 'folk' for a lot of people, and his training has in large part to do with maintenance of tradition within a social scheme becoming ever more complex, Springsteen's efforts here will raise the consciousness of a lot of people in a lot of places, geographical and social, on these issues. It's a long needed boost, and The Boss has a big following. Forget the inevitable superficial tripe in the early reviews. What I (I think what we all) are looking for is long term. We need to replace ourselves, and this CD will bring a lot of people into the fold.
- As with broadsides, the music hall, and early recording stars (John McCormack, Harry Lauder, Jimmy Rogers, Bradley Kincaid), this should be seen as a two way street. I would even hesitate to make assumptions about the degree of contact between mainstream performers and roots / source performers. The Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart is on the board of the American Folklife Center for a reason.
- Odds are, I think, that this tradition will die with Springsteen. Or, just possibly, it will inspire a revival of Springsteen-folk, such as we had Kingston-Trio-folk in the Sixties. But even though you could draw a continuous genealogy from Sixties Folk back to real folk, there wasn't much resemblance at the end. At most, it caused a few oddballs like me to want to get back to the real stuff. But it's rare.
- Yes, it's rare. And some of "us" are partly to blame -- the "folk nazis" who sneer at anything that isn't sung or played exactly as some older person did it when they were recorded. (And who's to say they didn't make changes in their next performance?)
After 40+ years of performing, I've realized it's almost as much fun getting other people to sing as it is doing it oneself. And if they don't do it as I would - so what? That's the folk process. If even a few people go on to listen to Pete, or Woody, or other folk singers (trad or revival) as a result of this recording, I'm all for it. Especially if some of those listeners start to make music for themselves.
- "I grew up in an era when if you were playing folk songs, it was when you got home from a regular job," he says. ~ Arlo Guthrie
ResourcesCommunist Party USA Gives Its History to N.Y.U. 2/20/07
http://www.nytimes. com/2007/ 03/20/arts/ 20nyu.html
- "Turn! Turn! Turn!," also known by its full title "Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is A Season)," is a song written by Pete Seeger, wherein Seeger set text from the Bible to music, specifically, a reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes, 3:1-8. Although he wrote it in the 1950s, Seeger waited until 1962 to record it, releasing the song on his The Bitter and The Sweet album on Columbia Records.
- Joe Hill and Joe Hill Illustration
"Joe Hill's last will was penned before there was a Communist Party USA. It probably was in the hands of either Bill Haywood, Nevada Jane Haywood or E. Gurley Flynn who were deported after the Palmer Raids ok'ed by Pres Wilson 1917 to 1921. History repeats itself. The will ought have been in the IWW archive which the CP gutted". ~ Cordley Coit