Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger died yesterday at 94.   The New York Times did a great article summarizing his very long career.  But I wanted to add this footnote.  I've played bluegrass/old time music on the 5 string banjo since the early 1960s.   Like many of my generation a good part of the reason I started to play was based on several people/groups - the Kingston Trio, Harry Belafonte and most especially Pete Seeger.

Seeger had an instruction book called "How to play a 5 string banjo" which in the original version was quite good.  It had a folkways record that went along with it which had a number of tunes, including "Ode to Joy" that were fun to learn. A few years ago I found a copy of a later version of the book which became a lot more political.   That is too bad because the original was a good way to learn how to play the banjo.   One of the strengths of the manual was its lack of purity.   He taught you a number of styles and the whole point was to learn how to play the instrument not in a particular style.   One of his odd riffs in the book and the record was to suggest that music should come from many sources and should be traded pretty freely.  A lot of his instructional style came from many venues including classical.

Pete Seeger, unlike the other two artists, was never a raging commercial success - although he had more than 100 albums and with the Weavers and the Almanac Singers sold a lot of records.   One of Pete's favorite banjos was a long neck Vega - one of my first banjos was a Vega (although I never liked playing a long neck - which has some extra frets to allow different keys without retuning.   Now one of my favorite instruments  is a Deering Parlor Banjo which has fewer frets.).

Pete Seeger introduced me to a lot of music including a lot of the labor organizing songs which in turn led me to learning a lot about Appalachian music and ultimately to old time string band music.  When my kids were little a lot of their lullabies were coal mining songs - which were often overtly political.   I became more of a frailer than a three finger picker (Scruggs style) as a result of the Appalachian influences.  But  Pete became a jumping off point rather than a constant place to refresh.

My family was pretty musical - my mother had a Master's in Music.  Both parents loved Opera.  I took piano lessons for a short time when I was young.   But I think both my parents thought my attraction to folk music was a bit strange.   I had two aunts in North Carolina who encouraged my interest and even sent me some albums from local groups.

By the time I began to play somewhat professionally (I played in a couple of bands and actually received some fees for it) I had migrated to the work of his brother Mike and the New Lost City Ramblers.   Although a lot of their music certainly included lots of political topics it was less overtly political than Pete's.  Mike died in 2009.   I then went off to a number of other old time musicians including somewhat obscure people like Charlie Poole.

In the 1960s in LA there were two places to hear a lot of folk music - the Ashgrove on Melrose and the UCLA folk festival (ultimately there was also McCabes which had a music shop in Long Beach).  In the 1963 UCLA event I actually played with the Rev. Gary Davis and was photographed for the Saturday Evening Post.   We were jamming between the regularly scheduled concerts and he walked up with his handler (he was blind) and asked if he could play with us.  That was a thrill.  I spent a lot of time at McCabes and the Ashgrove - although I am pretty sure I never heard Pete play at either venue.   McCabes had an odd assortment of musicians including an old Wobblie organizer who taught me a lot of the songs from the IWW song book.

Pete became an icon of the left, including the far left.   As I grew up I became disenchanted with his constant harangues for left of center causes. I also realized that like a lot of the left of the 1940s he never acknowledged that his support for Stalinist causes created a lot of harm in the world.  A lot of the things he espoused for I partially agreed with for example- I thought the Vietnam war was wrong - not because all wars are wrong but because that particular exercise in policy was confused.    I understand that music can often be political but I thought many other musicians were able to separate their politics from their music.

So in the end Pete Seeger was an important influence on me in two ways.  First, he introduced me to some music that has become a deep part of me.   But second, I parted from his politics - a lot of what he talked about between songs - turned me off.

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