February 5, 2011

FOLK BOOM: PETE SEEGER

My eye on the early-mid 1960s has been particularly fascinated lately with the folk and blues boom. Not only is it interesting to see how youth culture embraced players like Pete Seeger, the music itself was powered by deep storytelling, humor, history, and topical concerns of the era. Pete Seeger was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, so maybe to that paranoid establishment, this was real "spy music." Spy Vibers might enjoy these clips of Pete Seeger. The Power of Song illustrates Seeger's commitment to bettering the world through music and captures some of the larger issues of the early 1960s. His song, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, was performed on the Smothers Brothers show in 1967, but cut from broadcast by the censors. A campaign by the brothers pressured the network to finally air the footage, and Seeger was able to share a tune that showed his patriotism, empathy for those facing combat, and a larger questioning of war at the height of Vietnam. Written on his banjo were the words. "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." Pete Seeger Appreciation page here. Smithsonian Folkways site here.


Another way to appreciate this area of music is to remember how important it was to the development of other styles. To stretch a quote by the great blues composer Willie Dixon, folks like Dylan, Seeger, Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Skip James, Lightnin' Hopkins, Sonny Terry, Lonnie Donegan, New Lost City Ramblers, etc were the roots, and The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Kinks, Led Zeppelin, and Miles Davis were the fruits. Traditional folk and blues performers might not have made a big splash with rebellious fashion and attitude (though Muddy Waters and Lightnin' Hopkins were certainly sharp dressers), but they sure had something to say. Sometimes the deepest messages come in plain wrappings. One of the most memorable moments I've ever seen on TV was Pete Seeger on Hugh Hefner's Playboy's Penthouse (1959). Pete had a great talent for getting a crowd singing, and it was sweet to see a room of sophisticates huddled around him singing along. Hefner, a huge music fan himself, sat close to Pete and joined in. The guests were movers and shakers of the new cultural revolution, but unified in curiosity and humanity by that banjo.



Spy Vibers interested in seeing another side of the early-mid 1960s should check out the great documentary, The Power of Song (about Pete Seeger).

Although I played in a bluegrass band in high school, and have played mainly blues guitar all my life, my listening curiosity never really pulled in this direction until now. It's great to discover 'new" areas of culture when a fresh context or perspective open us up to the experience. Groovy organ soundtracks transcend time for me because they bring a sense of adventure and playfulness to the day. The spirit of Seeger and the poetry of Bob Dylan's songs transcend time because they embody universal, human emotion and experience. I'm playing banjo these days in the Spy Vibe lair! It's quite fun to pick out blues and folk tunes. I've also discovered that the instrument can double as a shamisen for traditional Japanese melodies. I encourage all Spy Vibers to spend some time with characters like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Alan Lomax. Dive into the Smithsonian Folkways site. Listen to traditional music from around the world and discover your inner folkie.



3 comments:

  1. I agree, nice post. Pete Seeger alternately interests me with his passion and repulses me for his righteousness. But he does seem very honest and that carries a lot of weight with me. I like some folk, but am much more into blues or bluegrass.
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  2. I'm with you, Robert. That honesty does carry weight. Although I too spend more time with blues, jazz, etc, there is a kind of integrity to many of these folk musicians. One thing that has interested me lately is that many old-timers crossed genres easily and blended elements of folk, jazz, country, and blues. Not the compartmentalized world we see now. And I like the traditional jazz scene in England in the early-mid 1950s: Ken Colyer, Chris Barber & Lonnie Donegan -having fun with dixieland jazz, blues, and traditional songs all in the same performances. Chris Barber recorded some neat combos of jazz with Sonny T & Brownie M, and with Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The joy of these various artists is contagious. On my iPod most right now on the folk side, if not Lonnie Donegan w Chris Barber & Van Morrison, are Mike Seeger's most recent recordings, True Vine and Southern Banjo Sounds. Cool stuff!

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