Music fans got some sad news yesterday, legendary folk singer and rabble rouser Pete Seeger passed away at the age of 94.
Over the last 24 hours, it’s been interesting watching the variety of musicians come out with memories and tributes to Seeger on Facebook:
“Peter Seeger towered over the folk scene like a mighty redwood for 75 years. He travelled with Woody Guthrie in the 1940s, stood up to Joe McCarthy in the 50s and marched with Dr Martin Luther King in the 60s. His songs will be sung wherever people struggle for their rights. We shall overcome.” – Billy Bragg (UK-based singer/songwriter)
“To everything there is a season and a purpose under heaven. Turn, Turn, Turn Pete Seeger 1919-2014 Pete Seeger, America’s tuning fork”, believed in “the power of song” to help bring social change.” – Willie Nelson (legendary country music singer/songwriter)
“RIP, Pete 1919 – 2014 – “You want to know why Pete Seeger is beaming (see photo)? He was watching a rocking set from Wanda Jackson. So much for the old folk music versus rock and roll conflict.” – Elvis Costello (UK-based singer/songwriter)
“Pete Seeger was not satisfied just having spectators. He believed that getting people to sing with him would bring them together, bringing more awareness to social injustice. RIP Pete Seeger” – Mike Ness (founder of Social Distortion, legendary Orange County punk band)
“Yes, he really was a swell guy wasn’t he? And by “swell guy,” I mean an absolute bad-ass pioneer of punk, free will, free expression (save for his distaste of the electric guitar) freedom for all humanity, equal rights…you name it, he tried to save it! R.I.P. Pete!” – Mark Pickerel (Seattle-based drummer for Screaming Trees, Neko Case and others)
“Pete Seeger is the reason I’m a banjo player. He invented the job I have. His example has been illuminating and inspiring, and his voice will be missed. If you’ve ever seen Pete perform, you’ve lifted your voice in song with him. He showed us that our voices were just as important as his. In honor of Pete, we should all sing out today, but don’t sing alone! If enough people join in, It might feel like he’s still here. We do have a hammer!” – Curtis Eller (North Carolina-based acrobatic, yodelling banjo player)
While these artists vary in musical styles you do see a common thread in all of them: a healthy distrust of authority, a proletarian approach to their craft and a drive for originality and meaning in their music. This shows that his talent reached beyond being an accomplished musician and songwriter. Seeger made music that meant something, that fought for change, that invited others to join in a larger, human conversation that will continue as long as there’s injustice and oppression in the world.
He’s often criticized for his aversion to the electric guitar, supposedly threatening to disconnect the equipment during Bob Dylan’s electrified set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. When you hear Seeger explain his aversion to Dylan’s electric sound, it makes sense, given the type of musician Seeger was:
“I couldn’t understand the words. I wanted to hear the words. It was a great song, “Maggie’s Farm,” and the sound was distorted. I ran over to the guy at the controls and shouted, “Fix the sound so you can hear the words.” He hollered back, “This is the way they want it.” I said “Damn it, if I had an axe, I’d cut the cable right now.”
For Seeger, the song and the words were everything and hiding behind a wall of distortion, to him, took away the transformative power that a good song could have over an audience. Of course later, he realized that electric music would become, as he said “…the vernacular of the second half of the twentieth century” but I think he had a point. Electric music did take away the inclusive environment that acoustic music encouraged and electric music has created a sort of aural wall between the performers and the audience. I think that’s why so many punk musicians admire him, as punk sought to bring back that inclusiveness, albeit largely with electric instruments.
But enough words. It’s better to see Seeger in action and here’s a great video of him on the Johnny Cash Show in 1970, doing what he did best, bringing people together with the power of song:
This week, I’m featuring musicans and shows that celebrate folk music and the unifying power it can have over an audience. These are for you Pete!
TONIGHT! Wednesday, January 29 I SARAH LEE GUTHRIE AND JOHNNY IRION – Bellingham, Washington
Nearly a decade after folk-rock duo Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion put out their first album together, the husband-and-wife pair feel like they’ve finally hit their stride on Wassaic Way, a collection of 11 new songs on Rte 8 Records.
Produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Wassaic Way is the latest entry in an ongoing creative relationship between the Guthrie family and Wilco. Sarah Lee is the daughter of Arlo Guthrie, and the granddaughter of the iconic folk singer Woody Guthrie, whose unfinished songs Wilco recorded with Billy Bragg on a pair of Mermaid Avenue albums in 1998 and 2000. Wilco also invited Sarah Lee and Johnny to perform at the band’s Solid Sound Festival in 2011, and the duo had toured with the Autumn Defense, Sansone’s project with Wilco bassist John Stirratt.
Any of the songs on Wassaic Way could be a single, which speaks to the strength of the songwriting, and also to Guthrie and Irion’s underlying goal: they wanted an album that moves them one step closer to getting at the heart of who they are as writers and performers.
Advanced tickets are no longer available for this show but there will be tickets available tonight at the door.
Friday, January 31 I Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock leads singing at Singing Festival – East Lansing, Michigan
The Ten Pound Fiddle Concert and Dance Series is thrilled to feature Dr. Ysaye Barnwell as the Friday night song leader at this year’s Mid-Winter Singing Festival.
In 1979, Dr. Barnwell joined the a cappella group Sweet Honey In The Rock, with whom she has toured all over the world and made over 30 recordings. Recently, after 34 years, Barnwell has retired from the group to pursue her other interests.
For the past thirty years, Dr. Barnwell has spent much of her time off stage working as a master teacher and choral clinician in African American cultural performance. Her workshop “Building a Vocal Community®: Singing in the African American Tradition” has during the past twenty-eight years, been conducted on three continents, making her work in the field a significant source of inspiration for both singers and non-singers, a model of pedagogy for educators, and cultural activists and historians.
Dr. Barnwell has been a commissioned composer on choral, film, video, dance and theatrical projects too numerous to mention. Barnwell’s music, published by Barnwell’s Notes, Inc. and distributed by The Musical Source, Washington, DC, has been performed and recorded by numerous choral ensembles and individual artists, as well as Sweet Honey In The Rock.
Sunday, February 2 I 360 Music: Mat Callahan and Yvonne Moore “Songs of Freedom” – Hartford, Connecticut
The Songs of Freedom Tour is a celebration of the life and work of James Connolly, the Irish revolutionary socialist and musician martyred by the British government for his role in the Easter Rising of 1916.
The Songs of Freedom songbook was originally published in 1907 in New York and directed to the American working class. Lost for a hundred years, the songbook is at once a collection of stirring revolutionary songs and a vital historical document. The Songs of Freedom CD turns the enduring lyrics of Connolly into timely and rocking manifestos for today’s young rebels. As Connolly himself urged, nothing can replace the power of music to raise the fighting spirit of the oppressed.
Please join editor and composer Mat Callahan, along with talented vocalist Yvonne Moore, to celebrate the new release of the 1907 James Connolly Songbook and the new Songs Of Freedom CD. Come indulge in the life, times, words, and contemporary relevance of James Connolly and sing the rollicking revolutionary anthems for a new generation of rebels in the 21st Century.