Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger photo 1

 

 

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Pete Seeger playlist

 

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

With the editor’s approval, this is a Topper 15 (actually a 16 as I could not decide between Barbara Allen and The Water Is Wide so I included both).

How do you write a Toppermost about an artist whose recording career lasted over seventy years and who recorded a vast number of songs during it? It is also the case that Pete Seeger was not merely a giant of American music but was one of the most influential figures in the Folk Revival in the second half of the twentieth century. He was also caught up in some of the major political controversies which occurred in the USA from the 1930s onwards. For Seeger, music and politics were always inextricably linked, as was the crucial importance of applying moral principles (as he saw them) in every aspect of one’s life.

 

AN OVERVIEW

In a sense, Pete Seeger’s career is seen by most of us in what Allen Ginsberg described in another context as “a chain of flashing images”. First, there is the 1930s when he was mentored by Woody Guthrie and travelled around America picking up folk songs (it was in this period that he first picked up the nickname, Johnny Appleseed). Then came the 1940s when Seeger entered military service and recorded propagandistic patriotic songs like Reuben James and Dear Mr. President (despite this, the FBI was already beginning to take an interest in him due to his links with the American Communist party). In 1948, Seeger published his manual, “How To Play The 5-String Banjo”, a book which has a good claim to be one of the most important texts in the history of the Folk Revival. Among those who discovered the art of banjo playing through it were artists of the calibre of Béla Fleck, Bill Keith, Tony Trischka and Guy Davis.

 

Pete Seeger photo 2

The Weavers (clockwise from top left): Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, Ronnie Gilbert

 

After that came possibly the most unexpected phase in Pete’s career, when he achieved large scale commercial success with the group, the Weavers. Although their music does not really appeal to me (a bit too much syrup in the mixture for my taste), there can be no argument about their key importance in popularising folk music in this period. The highpoint of this success came in 1950 when their rather watered-down version of the Lead Belly classic, Goodnight Irene, sold 2 million copies and remained at No.1 in the Billboard chart for thirteen weeks. The Weavers new-found appeal had the unwelcome effect, however, of alarming the staunchly anti-Communist element then active in American political life. As a result of growing pressure from such circles, the group’s sources of work began to dry up. This ‘blacklisting’ became even more widespread when Seeger’s name appeared in the notorious ‘red scare’ publication, Red Channels. Eventually, the pressure this caused led the Weavers to disband in 1952. By this point also, Seeger had become disillusioned with some of the compromises which the group had made to achieve their chart successes.

What followed was the most difficult part of Pete’s career, when he became one of the most reviled people in America. This wave of critical commentary eventually led to his celebrated appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in August 1955. On that occasion, Seeger displayed a degree of political and moral courage which many of his contemporaries failed to do. He refused to answer questions about his own political affiliations or beliefs (despite the fact that he had broken with the Communist Party in the late 1940s) but, even more crucially, he refused to ‘name names’ in relation to his family, friends, or musical associates. For this tenacity, Seeger was to find the blacklist against him became even more intense.

 

Pete Seeger photo 3

Pete Seeger testifies before the House Un-American Activities Committee

 

His response was, in Don McLean’s words, was to go “underground”. He started doing fifty-dollar bookings, then twenty-five-dollar dates at schoolhouses, auditoriums and eventually college campuses. In a way, this work – while hardly remunerative in a financial sense – helped to lay the groundwork for the later folk revival. It also played to Seeger’s strengths both as a gifted music teacher and as a proponent of direct audience engagement in his performances. In this respect, Pete was strongly influenced by the emphasis his father, the musicologist Charles Seeger, placed on the central importance of active music-making by the “broad mass of the people” rather than the pursuit of musical virtuosity by “a fraction of it”. Indeed, despite his own musical skills, Pete remained extremely wary of the idea that virtuosity was an end in itself. He also was generally distrustful of the elevation of the role of the individual above that of the community in music-making. Throughout his career, he emphasised his role as a ‘link in the chain’ and often recommended that people listen to the original artists whose songs he covered, rather than himself.

The 1960s were something of a paradoxical decade for Seeger. On the one hand, while the blacklist came to an end officially in 1962, it remained in place in some quarters (notably on the folk TV show Hootenanny) for a good deal longer. On the other hand, Seeger had become a venerated figure for and a mentor to many of the new folk-influenced songwriters who began to congregate in Greenwich Village in the early years of that decade. He also began to be active in the civil rights movement and played a key role in popularising the song, We Shall Overcome, which became its unofficial anthem. (Seeger discusses the history of the song here.)

The year 1965 also saw one of the most celebrated (or notorious) episodes in Seeger’s career, when his much-disputed response to Dylan ‘going electric’ at the Newport Festival became a central element in the myth surrounding the latter’s career. In the later 1960s, partly in consequence of his inability to appear elsewhere on television, Seeger began to present his own show, The Rainbow Quest, on a small independent station, Channel 47. This allowed Seeger to give air time to some of his own favourite artists, including people like Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, the Stanley Brothers, Roscoe Holcomb and Elizabeth Cotten.

In the 1970s, Pete Seeger’s energies began to shift into environmental causes, particularly through his campaign to clean up the Hudson river. Never one for half measures, he oversaw the building of a replica sloop called Clearwater which he used to publicise the cause. He also began to hold festivals along the river’s banks to raise money for the cause. As was the case throughout his life, much of the organisational work behind this effort was done by his wife, Toshi, and – unlike many of his earlier campaigns – their work ultimately had a good deal of success. It was from this point on – and throughout the remainder of his life – that popular perception of Seeger began to shift in the United States.

 

Pete Seeger photo 4

Woody & Pete

 

He came to be seen by many people there as a ‘national treasure’ (although by no means all, as any reading of the comments under Seeger’s YouTube videos will show) and as a link back to the more idealistic days of those artists like Woody Guthrie who combined music making with campaigning for social justice. Perhaps the high point of this process came in 2009 when he played with Bruce Springsteen and his grandson, Tao Rodríquez-Seeger, at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. By the time of his death in 2014, Seeger could even be described as a “revered voice of political protest” even by the UK Daily Telegraph, a paper not usually known for its fondness for radical protest.

“What can I say? He is the man who invented my profession. When his first solo album, ‘Darling Corey’, came out, it was like a clarion call: this is the real stuff, played the way it should be played. What is more, I always thought Pete was a much better musician than most people appreciated – including most of his fans. He phrases like a sonofabitch, he never overplays, and he dug up so much wonderful material. Whatever our disagreements over the years, I learned a hell of a lot from him.” Dave Van Ronk

“[He]had a real sense of the musician as historical entity – of being a link in the thread of people who sing in others’ voices and carry the tradition forward – and of the songwriter, in the daily history of the place he lived, that songs were tools, and, without sounding too pretentious, righteous implements when connected to historical consciousness.at the same time, Pete always maintained a tremendous sense of fun and lightness, which is where his grace manifested itself.” Bruce Springsteen

“[Pete] was selfless, lending his voice to the voiceless and never reluctant to use the power of music to radiate healing rays upon those harmed by forces greater than themselves. His songs and his banjo were built and meant to serve the underdog, no matter how small, and he would live to see many of the people prevail.” Eric Andersen

 

WHERE I CAME IN

In many respects, Pete Seeger was a critical figure for me personally as my interest in folk music really stemmed from a documentary that I saw about him as a young boy of about eleven or twelve. He sang Where Have All The Flowers Gone on it and it was a revelatory moment for me. I was also impressed by what the programme showed about Seeger’s environmental work, at a time when such concerns did not receive anything like the same publicity that they do today.

Soon afterwards, I pestered my late father to get me the Greatest Hits album. I proceeded to play it to death for several years. Unlike most people of my generation (those born in the early 1960s) I first discovered Dylan through my interest in Seeger and not vice versa. Ever since then, I have admired Pete more than I have all but a handful of other artists, not only for musical reasons but also for the strength of his political and social convictions and the bravery he displayed in upholding them. This admiration, however, is not an uncritical one. As I pointed out earlier, I have never really understood the Weavers appeal. Also, the dreadful ‘Oirish’ accent Seeger puts out in some of his renditions of Irish folk songs is not forgivable without a good deal of charity. Other occasional faults include his adoption of an air of arch coyness at times, although this was a besetting sin of some of those at the poppier end of the early Revival.

My own preference in Seeger’s music is largely centred on his solo work during the (almost) quarter century between 1950 (when he recorded his classic Darling Corey album) and 1973, when he recorded the superb Rainbow Race. It has always seemed to me that the latter record has never really received due recognition for its excellence, so I have included several tracks from it here. For that reason, I have excluded some obvious classics (If I Had A Hammer, We Shall Overcome, Peat Bog Soldiers and Pete’s version of Malvina Reynolds’ classic Little Boxes, among others). I have also included several live tracks here, as audience participation was a key element in Pete’s art. Rather than including everything here, what I have tried to do is include tracks which are representative of the wide variety of Seeger’s work. I have also attempted to draw attention to what I think are ‘neglected nuggets’ among his vast output, in the hope that this will direct readers’ attention towards them. For convenience sake, I have divided the tracks between ‘Folk Songs/Instrumentals’ and Seeger’s own compositions and covers of other songwriters’ work. I should make it clear that there is no hard and fast distinction between these two, as most of Pete’s songs followed the ‘folk process’ method of using pre-existing tunes or words. And so to the music …

 

FOLK SONGS/INSTRUMENTALS

TrackAlbum
Pygmy TuneNonesuch And Other Folk Tunes
Red River ValleyAmerican Favorite Ballads Vol.5
Darling CoreyPete Seeger's Greatest Hits (1967)
Barbara AllenThe Bitter And The Sweet
The Water Is WideI Can See A New Day
Penny's FarmThe Complete Bowdoin College Concert 1960

Despite Pete’s own suspicions of the idea of the virtuoso/individual star, at his best he was a musician of remarkable skill. Two of the best demonstrations of this are the classic (largely but not exclusively instrumental) album, Nonesuch And Other Folk Tunes he made with another fine musician, Frank Hamilton, in 1959, and the equally superb and strikingly innovative soundtrack album, Indian Summer, which he made with his brother Mike. I recommend both for anyone who doubts Pete’s abilities as a musician, although the second is too closely integrated to allow for selecting individual tracks. From Nonesuch, I have chosen the extraordinary Pygmy Tune, an African instrumental on which Pete manages to make the banjo sound almost like a kora.

In a sense, the tune also restores the banjo to its origins as an African instrument. It could also be seen as an example of ‘world music’ before that concept had been invented. Other highlights on the album are the two brilliant instrumentals, Meadowland and Chaconne and the jokey cover of the Johnny Horton hit, The Battle Of New Orleans.

Among Pete Seeger’s greatest achievements was the way in which he was able to popularise folk songs, many of which had been neglected for decades if not longer. Indeed, some songs which are now almost irritating in their ubiquity owed their initial popularity to Pete’s championing of them (cases in point wold be songs like Michael Row The Boat Ashore, Skip To My Lou and Kumbaya). Several of my selections here are much finer songs which Seeger helped to revive. Red River Valley, for example, was a cowboy song dating back at least to the late nineteenth century (there is a discussion of its origins here). There have been numerous versions by many artists but Pete’s ranks high among the very best. I also agree with the poster of this video that Seeger’s version has the best ‘banjo melody’ ever used to accompany the song.

The second Darling Corey was first collected by Cecil Sharp in 1918, but it is likely to be considerably older than that. While Pete recorded a fine version of it on his classic 1950 Folkways album of the same name, I have chosen the later version included on the Greatest Hits albums released in 1967. The banjo playing in this rendition is even better. With regard to Pete’s singing, it’s worth nothing that it was always far smoother than those on the original recordings. Also, his phrasing – for good and ill – always remained far more regular than that of the earlier performers. In this respect, his voice always retained a slight patrician aspect, which derived from his relatively well-to-do background. Despite this, however, Pete’s versions of songs generally worked because of his manifest enthusiasm for the music and his ability to inhabit the characters in the songs he sang. In my opinion, ‘Corey’ is one of his finest versions of a folk song.

Barbara Allen and The Water Is Wide have their origins in the British/ Irish folk tradition. Indeed, Barbara Allen is one of the oldest ballads in that tradition, dating back at least to the seventeenth century. It seems to have originated in Scotland but went on to become one of the most popular folk songs in England and Ireland and eventually in the United States. While Seeger sang many upbeat songs, it seems to me that there is, at times, an air of rather forced jollity about them. By contrast he shows a much more easy and natural mastery of songs with a touch of melancholy about them. This is definitely the case with his version of Barbara Allen which is one of the best interpretations of the song.

Seeger’s version of The Water Is Wide – a variant version of an even older ballad, Waly, Waly – displays a similar mastery of the long narrative song. This version is also a fine example of Pete’s perhaps unparalleled ability to get an audience to sing along on his songs.

The origins of my next selection, Penny’s Farm, are disputed, but the first recording of it was by the Bently Boys in 1929. According to Harry Smith, it was a revised version of an earlier song which had many variants, depending on the workplace where the individual singing it was employed. One of these versions, Hard Times In These Mines, was recorded by Mike Seeger, Pete’s brother, on his 1966 album, Tipple, Loom & Rail: Songs Of The Industrialization Of The South. Bob Dylan later used it – and its litany of complaints about members of an employer’s family – as the basis for his classic song, Maggie’s Farm. The version I have chosen clearly shows the driving rhythmic quality of Pete’s banjo playing and his ability to phrase like a sonofabitch – to use Dave Van Ronk’s phrase.

 

PETE SEEGER COMPOSITIONS/COVERS

TrackAlbum
Living In The CountryPete Seeger's Greatest Hits (1967)
Where Have All The Flowers GoneThe Bitter And The Sweet
Waist Deep In The Big MuddyWaist Deep In The Big Muddy...
Turn! Turn! Turn!Live In '65
Which Side Are You On?Pete Seeger's Greatest Hits (1967)
GuantanameraWe Shall Overcome:
Live At Carnegie Hall 1963
Sailing Down The Golden RiverRainbow Race
Snow SnowRainbow Race
Last Train To NurembergRainbow Race
Hobo's LullabyRainbow Race

The brilliant American guitarist, Leo Kottke, has described my next selection, Living In The Country, as “one of Pete’s greatest pieces” (Leo’s version of it can be seen here). It ranks as one of the greatest instrumentals in American music. It also displays the beautifully relaxed, natural and easy style Pete had on the guitar.

By contrast, several of my other choices in this section are deeply political songs. Many of them are anti-war songs and several were inspired by Seeger’s deeply felt opposition to the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Of these, Where Have All The Flowers Gone is a masterpiece of concision and economy with words. Seeger based it – in part – on lines from a Cossack folk song he had found in a Mikhail Sholokhov’s novel “And Quiet Flows The Don”. Seeger later claimed that he derived the tune from an old Irish lumberjack song, but there is some dispute as to its exact provenance. Whatever that was, the song’s effect on subsequent folk-influenced songwriters was immense. As Michael Gray has pointed out, for example, it was “not far from this anthem to Blowin’ In The Wind”.

The next one, Waist Deep In The Big Muddy is a far more biting and ironic take on a similar anti-war theme. The song also became something of a cause célèbre in 1965 when it was cut – in a deliberate act of censorship – from a performance he had recorded for the popular comedy show, The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour, on CBS television. This indicated the nervousness in the network – the first in the mainstream to feature Pete Seeger after the end of the blacklist – and here is that controversial performance.

Another of my choices, Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season), is probably best known through the version by the Byrds. The lyric is largely taken from lines in the book of Ecclesiastes, but Seeger altered them slightly to give the song a subtle anti-war undertone.

In the later 1960s and early 1970s, Pete Seeger experienced something of a crisis of conscience in relation to the Vietnam War. He had also begun to reassess some of the myths on which his own vision of America had been based. This reassessment was partly based on an incident which occurred in 1968 when Seeger asked his friend, Jimmy Collier, to lead the singing on This Land Is Your Land. The two men were staying at Resurrection City in Washington, a campsite drawing together various oppressed groups in the USA, that had been the brainchild of Martin Luther King before his assassination. Before they could sing it, Henry Crowdog of the Sioux Indian delegation there approached them and said, “Hey, you’re both wrong. It belongs to me”.

When he sang ‘This Land’ subsequently, he often added a new verse –

This land is your land, but it once was my land
Before we sold you Manhattan Island
You pushed my nation to the reservation,
This land was stole by you from me
.

This kind of revisionist thinking is clearly evident on Last Train To Nuremberg from Seeger’s brilliant 1973 album Rainbow Race. It is an angry tough-minded song which is worlds away from the chirpy singalong leader image which is often associated with Pete. It also asks important and perhaps unanswerable questions about how the responsibility for war crimes should be attributed.

In his early career, Seeger was often involved in trade union activities, frequently performing for workers who were on strike. This work led him to compose one of his finest early songs, the talking blues, Talking Union, which just missed out on inclusion. It also drew him to the classic Florence Reece song, Which Side Are You On?, which she wrote in 1931 in response to the Harlan County War. In my opinion, Seeger’s version is the definitive one and is filled with a righteous anger which no later version has matched.

By contrast, Guantanamera is one of Seeger’s most successful ventures into what would nowadays be termed ‘world music’. Like most of his work it also has a clear political message – in this case an anti-colonial one:

For my money, Rainbow Race is the finest of Pete Seeger’s late albums and sadly is also a much neglected one. On it, Pete shows that it has internalised the influence of the younger generation of songwriters – of people like Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joni Mitchell and Eric Andersen – in a way that is very unusual for an artist of his age at that time. As a lyricist also, songs like the beautiful Snow Snow rank with the very best he had written in his career. Sailing Down The Golden River is an equally fine song, with a lyric which touches on the environmental concerns that dominated much of his later life. My final selection, Hobo’s Lullaby, is a particularly apt one on which to conclude this piece. As Pete points out in this video, it was the song which he and Arlo, Woody’s son, sang for Woody Guthrie on his deathbed. Although Woody’s version remains my favourite one, Pete’s has a stately beauty which is very much its own. And that is Lester Flatt singing background vocals on the video

To conclude then, since I first saw him on TV over forty years ago, Pete Seeger has remained an inspirational artist for me. As Joan Baez points out in her 1994 tribute, he still appears to me to be someone who was both “a first rate entertainer and also lived a principled life”. Discovering his music at a young age gave me entry into a world of fine music which I might not otherwise have encountered, and, for that, I will always be grateful to him. It is well worth going past the myth and digging further into the superb – if sometimes uneven – body of work which this extraordinary artist built up over his lifetime.

 

Joan Baez pays tribute to Pete Seeger at the 1994 Kennedy Center Honors

 

Pete Seeger talks to Tim Robbins about the Almanac Singers (1940-43: himself, Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell) in 2006

 

The Weavers – Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, Fred Hellerman, Ronnie Gilbert – perform Tzena Tzena Tzena, Around The World, So Long (It’s Been Good To Know You), Goodnight Irene, The Roving Kind (c1950)

 

Pete Seeger with activists in the Civil Rights Movement singing We Shall Overcome in 1963

 

Pete Seeger sings Bob Dylan’s Who Killed Davey Moore on “Australian Bandstand” in September 1963

 

Pete Seeger leads performers at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival into Down By The Riverside

 

In 1965, activist Pete Seeger talks to CBS about being blacklisted for “un-American activities” and his refusal to answer questions that violated his Constitutional Rights

 

Pete and Peggy Seeger in concert at the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild in New York state, 19th March 2011

 

 

Pete Seeger photo 5

Pete Seeger (1919–2014)

 

The discography of Pete Seeger consists of 52 studio albums, 23 compilation albums, 22 live albums, and 31 singles. Seeger’s musical career started in 1940 when he joined The Almanac Singers. He stayed with the group for two years until he was drafted into the Army. In 1948, Seeger and another former member of the Almanacs, Lee Hays, founded the Weavers, who achieved commercial success. After the demise of the Weavers, Seeger released a solo album, American Folk Songs for Children, in 1953 on Folkways Records. He continued to release albums on Folkways until he was signed to Capitol in 1961 (source: Wikipedia).

Pete Seeger: Celebrating 100 years of folk music and activism

Books on Pete Seeger by David Dunaway including Discography

The Pete Seeger Appreciation Page (archived)

Pete Seeger Music Page (Appleseed Recordings)

Charles Seeger (Wikipedia)

Pete Seeger biography (Apple Music)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Eric Andersen, Bob Dylan, Johnny Horton, Lead Belly, Phil Ochs, Mike Seeger, Bruce Springsteen

TopperPost #850

13 Comments

  1. David Wilcox
    Mar 28, 2020

    Brilliant.

  2. Ilkka Jauramo
    Mar 28, 2020

    ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ was a surprise on this list. – Pete Seeger can be harsh, aggressive, demanding. This song shows another side of him: soft, caring, gentle.

  3. Dave Stephens
    Mar 29, 2020

    Congratulations Andrew. This is up there with your very best. It’s something of a cliché to say that we’ve waited a long time for a Toppermost on Pete Seeger but the wait was worthwhile . . . but it really was.

  4. Peter Viney
    Mar 30, 2020

    Well done, Andrew. You mention the “slight patrician aspect.” I was highly critical of Pete Seeger elsewhere (I mentioned that his London Palladium TV rendition of Little Boxes as a boy scout leader was the most patronising thing I had ever heard … it still is, and thank you for excluding it) and was taken to task by American friends who pointed out how many of his songs I love, and I read about his admirable life and heroic work extensively. I have sung Where Have All The Flowers Gone to 3 kids and 6 grandkids. I went out and picked up CDs, and when I saw them, Weavers LPs and Pete Seeger LPs. I tried really hard, but in the end I don’t like banjo and I sadly still can’t stand his voice (or pullover). I’ve read everything about Newport 1965, and on balance I think he was the villain in that one. But yes, you bring out his influence and importance.

  5. Andrew Shields
    Mar 30, 2020

    Dave, David, Ilkka and Peter – Thanks for the kind words.
    Peter – I was only a child when Newport happened so it does not have the same resonance for me as it has for those who were more ‘tuned in’ at the time. I see it as being something of a ‘tragic’ event – essentially without ‘villains’ – where both parties were right on their own terms. Pete’s actions were unjustified in some ways but this was a situation where he felt that the musical philosophy he had developed over the previous thirty years was being betrayed. What is forgotten sometimes also is how generous Pete had been to Dylan, Ochs, Paxton etc in the early stages of their careers.
    Meanwhile Bob was doing what he had to do for his own artistic purposes.
    I have also tried to suggest here that Pete’s vision of music as a communal enterprise was likely from the start to come into conflict with the more individualistic ethos of the 60’s songwriters. In a sense, Newport was much more about this clash than about ‘electric’ instruments.
    As Elijah Wald has shown, Newport was also a product of the clash of egos between Alan Lomax and Albert Grossman. Pete foolishly perhaps allowed himself to become the meat in the sandwich between these two.

  6. David Lewis
    Mar 31, 2020

    My reading of it is somewhat between Peter and Andrew in that Pete allowed himself to be the villain. I think Pete saw the story develop and knew the power of a great story. And if he had to be the villain than so be it. I think at some level he knew the clash of ideology was bigger then all of them.
    I wasn’t even born when Newport happened, so I see it from even further away. This is not to disparage or diminish at all those who were ‘there’. It’s probably the most interesting and important of all the festivals and I wish it had been filmed in the way the less important Woodstock was.
    Ps Peter, I’ve got a few toppermosts coming up you won’t enjoy… but give them a listen.

  7. Andrew Shields
    Mar 31, 2020

    David, part of it was filmed. The problem is it’s not entirely clear if the audience is cheering or booing more at the end.
    Of course, Pete didn’t have an axe … His story about Newport did, however, change over time. Later on, he claimed it was all about not hearing the words but his contemporary writings indicate his upset about what happened. His folly had been to see Bob as Woody reincarnated rather than someone who was very much his own man.

  8. Peter Viney
    Mar 31, 2020

    Exactly Andrew. All Bob’s mentors found out that he was on his own path. Joe Boyd was the sound engineer at Newport 1965. His account is probably the best. Bob meant he was not going to work on Maggie’s Farm nor for her brother no more, which is why he started with it as a message to all his mentors and backers. The YouTube video is way better than the early bootlegs of this. Mike Bloomfield was on superb form. David, on banjo, you are the exception of course!

  9. Merric Davidson
    Mar 31, 2020

    I saw Pete Seeger at the Royal Albert Hall (just a few weeks after Newport as it happens) in October 1965. He was already a musical and political hero to me, a huge influence, and his LP (featured here in Andrew’s topper) “We Shall Overcome: Carnegie Hall Concert June 8, 1963” was a constant companion and one of my most played records. (The complete CD of the concert is essential but the LP even more so!). I would want to include If You Miss Me At The Back Of The Bus and probably a couple of others off the album and from his repertoire at that time.
    In a Guardian tribute to Seeger two days after his death, Martin Carthy writes:
    “He was one of the most important influences in my life. People talk about Pete, quite rightly, as an American icon. But without him, the British folk scene wouldn’t exist as we know it today…
    “There was a big concert at the Royal Albert Hall, after which he went out and did the rounds of tiny folk clubs. I saw him turn up without any fanfare at a little theatre called the Unity in King’s Cross: he just got out his guitar, played a few numbers and slipped away…
    “His iron will kept him playing and campaigning to the very end, and even though that magnificent voice had all but gone he was still campaigning loudly against pollution in the Hudson valley, still upsetting the neighbours.”

    I enjoyed listening to the tracks Andrew has picked out from later in Pete’s career and I’d like to thank Andrew for his excellent Seeger family saga on Toppermost. Also, I believe there are tangential pieces to come, so plenty of chances to revisit.

  10. Glenn Smith
    Apr 2, 2020

    Andrew, nice one. I especially like your personal journey with Pete, so I get where you are coming from with regard to his astonishing legacy and output, and total respect for anyone blacklisted. Having said that, a couple of things:
    Bruce’s tribute album, there is no higher compliment to Pete’s legacy, I’d argue it’s up there with Bruce’s best work, including The River and Darkness. When my boys were young it was a huge favourite in the car, as we all know no greater compliment than little kids getting into it, they loved those tunes.
    The Cohen brothers didn’t really go near him in Inside Llewyn Davis when they pretty much had a crack at everyone else in that early 60’s folky scene. Why, cause he took himself too seriously maybe?
    Yet…he’s probably the inspiration for George Menschell in A Mighty Wind, or Mitch Cohen?
    His TV show is on youtube and it’s quite brilliant if only for the sessions with Richard Farina and the simply dazzling Mimi Baez as well as his encounter with Johnny Cash taking his shoes off..
    Where am I going with this? Michael Gray’s entry in the Dylan Encyclopedia kinda ruined Pete for me, it’s very funny and a little cruel but I think he has a point. And as an artist his attitude at Newport was awful, no matter how hard he tried to revise it over the years. He forgot that basic rule that it is the artist’s responsibility to break free of form and I think that’s why I veer towards the other camp shown in the comments above.
    Thanks, I needed this in these crazy on line learning times, a great distraction reading and pondering your fine writing.

  11. Andrew Shields
    Apr 2, 2020

    Glenn, thanks for this. Funny you mention the Michael Gray piece in the Encyclopedia. Michael is one of my very favourite writers but it seems to me to be one of his weakest pieces. He has a blind spot about Pete as he has in relation to Sinatra.
    It includes the extraordinary claim – about someone who played the banjo for god’s sake – that ‘black music. …[had] little impact upon his musicality.’ That is part of the reason why I included ‘Pygmy Tune’ in this piece. But it also ignores the huge influence spirituals had on Pete’s work.
    Along with this, Pete always cited Lead Belly as a key influence on his guitar playing. And anyone who watches Pete playing ‘Living in The Country’ here and accepts Michael’s claims about ‘wooden unmusicality’ is watching a very different video to the one I am watching.
    And I think if a critic talks about wanting to ‘hit someone’ it is not really part of a well-made argument.

  12. Peter Viney
    Apr 2, 2020

    I like Michael Gray and The Dylan Encylopedia (and am acknowledged) so we e-mailed quite a bit. We had a discussion post-publication on a somewhat harsh comment on Maud Hudson. I’ll re-read his piece but I suspect his opinions may agree with mine, much as they do on Frank Sinatra (but NOT Nancy). I saw Michael speak on Song & Dance Man at Borders and he played the live 1966 Mr Tambourine Man (first half, solo) as his favourite piece of Dylan harmonica. A tramp had wandered in out of the cold and went up to him at the end and said ‘You’re the best harmonica player I’ve ever heard.’

    I went and read it. Michael Gray mentions the Dylan-Seeger duet on “Dylan’s tedious and self-righteous song, Ye Playboys and Playgirls” so Bob gets the harsh words too. Gray has a lot to say on how often Seeger “compositions” were only tweaks on existing material. Though says Seeger was creditably quick to acknowledge that. He really goes for the humorous songs “These have a fatal, fey whimsy once wide-spread on the folk scene … (it) is to be plunged back to the excruciating sing-along folk world in which Julie Felix was always going to the zoo, zoo, zoo.” A comment which suddenly reminded me of Shirley Abicair and her zither. His quote from Peter Yarrow on Seeger, “We follow the path he has blazed with gratitude and pride” gets instantly reversed by adding “These people still believe that well-meaningness makes good music, and like Seeger, prove that it doesn’t.” In the end, we’re into the argument about Manchester Free Trade Hall 1966 (the culmination of Newport 65’s divide) and ‘Judas!’ The people who immediately embraced Dylan going electric tend to be in the Michael Gray lobby on Pete Seeger. Newport doesn’t get forgiven? But time passes on folk. My diary for 1967 and 1968 records seeing The Young Tradition and considering them incredibly boring. Nowadays I’m seeking out their albums and enjoying them.

  13. Andrew Shields
    Apr 2, 2020

    Peter, i think Michael’s comments on Pete as a songwriter are also based on a misunderstanding of how he viewed himself as an artist. He saw his chief role in that respect as being to pass on songs which came from within the folk tradition. In that context, the singer was always of far less importance than the song. Pete viewed himself as an ‘incidental’ songwriter, not as a singer-songwriter in the 60s sense.
    In this context, ‘tweaking existing material’ was seen as a part of the folk process. Indeed, Bob used this technique frequently in his early career (as with ‘No Auction Block’ and ‘Blowing In The Wind’ ) and has returned to it in a much more concerted way on the albums since ‘Modern Times’. As you point out here, Pete – unlike Bob- always was keen to acknowledge his sources.
    If you view Pete’s work in this way, what is striking is not how few great songs he wrote but how many.

    By the way, this picture seems to show that Bob and Pete had moved on from Newport by the time it was taken at the Woody Guthrie tribute concert in 1968. According to Robert Shelton, Pete was seen slapping his guitar in appreciation during Bob’s great set with The Band that night.

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