‘Change has come to America’: how I saw the Obama inauguration

‘Change has come to America’: how I saw the Obama inauguration

I wrote these posts on 20 and 21 January 2009. No further comment required, I think. Continue reading “‘Change has come to America’: how I saw the Obama inauguration”

Blessed be the Nation: the story sung by Pete Seeger

Blessed be the Nation: the story sung by Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, photo by Anthony Pepitone (Wikipedia)

Pete Seeger, photo by Anthony Pepitone (Wikipedia)

Following the death of Pete Seeger I came across reviews of an album put out in 1998 by Appleseed Recordings, an idealistic independent music label set up by Jim Musselman, a lawyer and activist who once worked with  Ralph Nader.  Musselman has devoted the label to releasing socially conscious contemporary and traditional folk and roots music by established and lesser-known musicians.  On the Appleseed website, Musselman speaks of the years when he worked with Ralph Nader:

I travelled the country for eight years, criss-crossing America in a Guthrie-esque way, seeing the nation and its citizens up close, learning the best ways to listen and to communicate. When I was organizing local communities to fight back against multinational corporations, I would start our open public meetings with a song, figuring that unifying people in singing was an important first step to unifying them in political action.

In 1997, for Appleseed’s first major project, Musselman approached numerous well-known musicians, along with writer Studs Terkel with a request to each record a song written, adapted or performed by Pete Seeger for a tribute album to highlight Seeger’s musical contributions and his tradition of mixing songs and political activism. The resulting  double CD Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger was the one I stumbled across as I followed internet references to Seeger in the days after his death.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone cover

It’s a terrific album from which you gain a holistic sense of the man and the causes he embraced. Jim Musselman also did a great job choosing songs from Seeger’s vast repertoire and matching each tune with an artist ‘based on either the philosophical fit between the artist and the message of the song and/or their unique musical style’, as he writes in the accompanying booklet. As an example of this approach, take the opening track – ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ – sung by Irish songwriter and peace activist Tommy Sands with Bosnian Vedran Smailovic (‘the Cellist of Sarejevo).  Bear in mind that this was recorded in 1997, before the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland and only months after the lifting of the siege of Sarejevo.

The album includes 37 versions of Seeger-related songs specially recorded by luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Ani DiFranco and many others.  The material is wonderful, every song reinforcing the picture of Seeger as both an interpreter of musical tradition and as a crusader for social justice.  The performances are first-rate, with many highlights. Bruce Springsteen’s gentle reading of ‘We Shall Overcome’, for example, precedes the version he recorded for his album, The Seeger Sessions many years later, while Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt offer a lilting reggae-inflected account of ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’.  There are the songs that reflect Seeger’s later commitment to environmental issues and his campaign (entirely successful) to clean up his beloved, polluted Hudson river, such as ‘Sailing Down My Golden River’.

Lisa Kalvelage report

A remarkable, if less musical interlude comes with Ani DiFranco singing ‘My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage’, Pete’s adaptation of the words spoken in May 1966 by Lisa Kalvelage, one of four women who stopped a shipment of napalm to Vietnam by standing on a loading platform and refusing to move. Seeger’s words come from the statement she made in court after being arrested. Kalvelage likened her protest to lessons she learned from being raised in Nazi Germany – never to keep silent:

If you live in a democratic country where the government is you, you cannot say, ‘I followed orders,’ ” she told a reporter. “If you recognize that something is wrong, you have to speak out to set it straight.

But the words I really wanted to pass on in this post come from one of the two recitations on the album by the late Studs Terkel. It’s a reading of ‘Blessed Be The Nation’, verses Seeger left on a rock on an island where he had camped with his youngest daughter.  He elaborates in the CD booklet:

In 1964 I took my youngest daughter canoeing on a beautiful lake in Maine.  We camped on a little island and were dismayed to see the beach littered with bottles and cans.  We picked ’em all up.  I had a marker with me and wrote this graffiti on a flat stone.  I never wrote a tune, but someone else can try.

Seeger never put music to these words.  I’d like to share them here:

Cursed be the nation of any size or shape,
Whose citizens behave like naked apes,
And drop their litter where they please,
Just like we did when we swung from trees.

But blessed be the nation and blessed be the prize,
When citizens of any shape or size
Can speak their mind for any reason
Without being jailed or accused of treason.

Cursed be the nation without equal education,
Where good schools are something that we ration,
Where the wealthiest get the best that is able,
And the poor are left with crumbs from the table.

Blessed be the nation that keeps its waters clean,
Where an end to pollution is not just a dream,
Where factories don’t blow poisonous smoke,
And we can breath the air without having to choke.

Cursed be the nation where all play to win,
And too much is made of the colour of the skin,
Where we do not see each other as sister and brother,
But as being threats to each other.

Blessed be the nation with health care for all,
Where there’s a helping hand for those who fall,
Where compassion is in fashion every year,
And people, not profits, is what we hold dear.

There’s a recording of Studs Terkel reading the words on YouTube:

In another song on the album – ‘False from True’, sung by Guy Davis – Seeger ruefully observes the limits of protest in song.  But, as he remarks in the verse, he continued to sing our story for as long as he had breath within.  For that we can be thankful, for the words continue, inspiring succeeding generations:

No song I can sing will make a politician change his mind,
No song I can sing will take the gun from a hate-filled man;
But I promise you, and you, brothers and sisters of every skin,
I’ll sing your story while I’ve breath within.

Pete Seeger: he surrounded hate and forced it to surrender

Pete Seeger: he surrounded hate and forced it to surrender

Pete Seeger

‘He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad can kick your ass.’

Four years ago, Pete Seeger celebrated his 90th birthday party with a sell-out concert at Madison Square Garden.  Characteristically, it was a fundraiser for a campaign to which he’d dedicated years of his life: cleaning up New York’s Hudson River.  That night, Bruce Springsteen introduced Seeger with these words:

He’s gonna look a lot like your granddad that wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad can kick your ass. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself.

And that’s the truth.  Pete Seeger, who died yesterday aged 94, opposed McCarthyism, and worked tirelessly on behalf of civil rights movement, making his first trip south at the invitation of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1956. One of the seminal political events in his life, and the one which solidified his intent to make actively combating racism a lifelong pursuit, was the 1949 Peekskill race riots. In this video, Seeger recounts his experiences:

Seeger is the only singer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who was convicted of contempt of Congress. In 1955, he refused to testify about his past membership in the Communist Party. He had quit the party in 1949 though, he later admitted, should have left much earlier. ‘It was stupid of me not to…I thought Stalin was the brave secretary Stalin and had no idea how cruel a leader he was’.  His conviction was overturned on appeal in 1961, but Seeger continued to be blacklisted by American TV networks until 1967. CBS censored parts of his anti-Vietnam War song, ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’, when he sang it on the Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour.

Poet Carl Sandberg dubbed Pete Seeger ‘America’s tuning fork’, and there’s little doubt that Seeger helped introduce America to its own musical heritage, devoting his life to using the power of song as a force for social change. He went from the top of the pop charts (‘Goodnight Irene’) to the blacklist and was banned from American commercial television for more than 17 years. In his nineties, Seeger continued to invigorate and inspire the musicians – most notably Bruce Springsteen, whose album We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions was a tribute, comprising songs popularized by Seeger. Three years later, Springsteen persuaded Seeger to sing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ with him at Obama’s inaugural concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Seeger sang the two ‘radical’ verses of the Woody Guthrie song that invariably get cut when it is sung in public, or in American schools:

As I was walking – I saw a sign there
And that sign said – no trespassing
But on the other side …. it didn’t say nothing!

Now that side was made for you and me!

In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumbling and some are wondering
If this land’s still made for you and me.

He sang the song again last September in one of his last public performances at a Farm Aid concert in Saratoga Springs, New York state.  As well as Guthrie’s ‘radical’ verses, Seeger inserted another verse of his own that protested fracking in New York state – through the decades he has campaigned on environmental issues, leading a successful crusade in the 1970s to clean up New York’s Hudson River, which was so heavily polluted that there was nowhere on its course that was safe to swim in. He built a boat, the Clearwater, that travelled the Hudson River, drawing attention to the polluted condition of the river. He founded the Clearwater organization which supports environmental education programmes in schools and campaigns for tighter environmental laws.

Pete Seeger came from a wealthy, yet highly politicised radical family. He was born at his grandparent’s estate in Patterson, New Jersey in 1919, the son of musicologist Charles Seeger and his wife, Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, a violin teacher. Both parents could trace their ancestors to the Mayflower.

His father was a pacifist during World War I whose pacifism, while teaching music at the University of California, cost him his teaching position.  In the 1930s Pete was attending Harvard, hoping to become a journalist.  In 1936, at  a folk song and dance festival he heard a five string banjo for the first time and his life was changed forever.  By 1938 he was passing out leaflets for Spanish civil war relief on the Harvard campus and had joined the Young Communist League. He left Harvard in the spring of 1938 without taking his exams.

He went to New York where he found work with the Archives of American Folk Music. Seeger sought out legendary folk song figures including Leadbelly. Inspired by these people and learning much about folk music, he began working with the five string banjo and soon became an accomplished player.

In 1940, Seeger met Woody Guthrie and together they formed the Almanac Singers, a musical collective including Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Sis Cunningham, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and others. They recorded union songs, such as ‘The Talking Union Blues’ which they wrote as an organizing song, as well as pacifist songs. Drafted into the Army in 1942, the FBI was already building a file on Seeger because of his left-wing activities.

In 1945, after his discharge from the Army, Seeger founded the People’s Songs collective but by 1949 it had gone bankrupt.  On 4 Sepember 1949, Paul Robeson was scheduled to perform with Seeger at the Lakeland Picnic Grounds in Peekskill.  A large mob of anti-communist vigilantes stormed the venue, attacking performers and members of the audience. While trying to drive away from the scene, Seeger’s car was attacked by vigilantes. His wife Toshi and their three year old son Danny were injured by flying glass.

In the late 1940s, Seeger and Lee Hays wrote ‘If I Had a Hammer’. In 1950 Seeger, Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert formed the Weavers. They achieved great success, especially with their recording of the Leadbelly tune ‘Goodnight Irene’.

However, blacklisting in the McCarthy era put paid to commercial success for the Weavers. During the 1950s Seeger occasionally performed with the Weavers but mainly paid the bills with his appearances on the college circuit, and with recordings for Folkways Records (including albums of songs for children, two of which our daughter would play repeatedly when young).

In 1956, after writing ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ Seeger, Arthur Miller and six others were indicted for contempt of Congress by the House of Representatives. He was found guilty of contempt in 1961 and sentenced to ten years in prison. He was released from prison in 1962 when his case was dismissed on a technicality.

During the folk music revival of the early 1960s, the TV networks occasionally invited Seeger to appear on folk music shows like Hootenany, but quickly dropped him when they discovered that he had been blacklisted.

Pete Seeger singing If I Had a Hammer at SNCC rally in Greenwood, MS, 1963

Pete Seeger singing If I Had a Hammer at SNCC rally in Greenwood, MS, 1963

Seeger became involved in the civil rights marches in the South, both as a marcher and as a performer for the marchers. One notable occasion was at Greenwood in Mississippi in the summer of 1963 when there were voter registration drives underway in various communities, one of which was in Greenwood. On 2 July, Seeger performed at a SNCC rally before a small gathering of civil rights workers,  singing ‘If I Had a Hammer’.  Bob Dylan sang ‘Only A Pawn in Their Game’, written following the murder of Medgar Evers less than a month earlier, on 12 June.

Pete Seeger’s version of ‘We Shall Overcome’ became the anthem of the movement.  He discussed the origins of the song in an interview in 2006:

Seeger was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War. In September 1967 he appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS-TV where he was scheduled to sing ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’, an attack on the war, but the song was cut by the network censors.

‘Songs won’t save the planet’, Seeger told his biographer David Dunlap, author of How Can I Keep From Singing? ‘But, then, neither will books or speeches…Songs are sneaky things. They can slip across borders. Proliferate in prisons.” He liked to quote Plato: “Rulers should be careful about what songs are allowed to be sung.’

I have been singing folk songs of America and other lands to people everywhere. I am proud that I never refused to sing to any group of people because I might disagree with some of the ideas of some of the people listening to me. I have sung for rich and poor, for Americans of every possible political and religious opinion and persuasion, of every race, colour, and creed.

Pete Seeger on The Johnny Cash Show in 1970 complete and uncut

It takes a worried man to sing a worried song….

Pete Seeger with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee: ‘Down by the Riverside’

In 2012 Pete recorded a hearty version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ for an Amnesty International fund-raising album:

surrounded hate and forced it to surrender

‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender’

John Nichols’ closes a fine elegy on The Nation website (which reminds us that Seeger played a banjo inscribed with the message ‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender’) with these words:

He showed us how to do our time with grace, with a sense of history and honour, with a progressive vision for the ages, and a determination to embrace the next great cause because the good fight is never finished. It’s just waiting for a singer to remind us that: ‘The world would never amount to a hill of beans if people didn’t use their imaginations to think of the impossible’.

As I mentioned earlier, the fine biography of Pete Seeger written by David Dunaway is entitled How can I keep from singing? – taking its title from an old 19th century hymn revived and adapted by Pete in the early 1950s

My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it’s music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness ’round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble sick with fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging,
When friends by shame are undefiled
How can I keep from singing?

So long, Pete.  It’s been good to know you.

American Masters: Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (PBS)

Seeger at his home in Beacon, New York state in March 2009

The baton passed to another generation

See also

Pete Seeger

Don’t you know it’s darkest before the dawn
And it’s this thought keeps me moving on
If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning
If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning

Some say that humankind won’t long endure
But what makes them so doggone sure?
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing

And so keep on while we live
Until we have no, no more to give
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger

So though it’s darkest before the dawn
These thoughts keep us moving on
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows

Mary Travers

Mary Travers, who with Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow helped popularise folk music in the 1960s as Peter, Paul and Mary, has died aged 72.  Peter, Paul and Mary were the most popular folk group of the 1960s and their music had a profound effect on my musical appreciation and political development at that time. Along with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, they provided a doorway to a rich musical tradition. They could trace their roots and inspiration back to music and events from the late ’40s, and the founding of the Weavers. Though they broke up in 1952, the Weavers planted two seeds in American popular culture: one was the folk song revival of the late fifties and the other, a byproduct of their blacklisting, was the emergence of a politically focused branch of folk music.

Travers was born in Kentucky but attended high school in New York’s West Village, where her family lived in the same building as Pete Seeger. She became a disciple of the Weavers and performed with Seeger before Yarrow and his manager Albert Grossman (who later steered Bob Dylan’s career) recruited her for the trio. After seven months of rehearsals, the group made its debut in 1961 performing songs carefully arranged by Milk Okun.

I played their first two LPs till the vinyl smoked, alongside The Times They Are A Changin’ and Joan Baez 1 and 2. Their debut contained ‘Early In The Morning’ (featured recently on Mad Men),  ‘500 Miles’, ‘If I Had a Hammer’,’Lemon Tree’ and Seeger’s ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’. The follow-up, In The Wind, included three Dylan tracks (‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, in a version I have always loved, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ and ‘Quit Your Lowdown Ways’) as well as ‘Long Chain On’, ‘Rocky Road’ and ‘All My Trials’.

Peter Paul and Mary sometimes get a bad press, but I never saw any contradiction between listening to the Beatles and the Stones, or the latest top twenty on Radio Luxembourg, and being inspired by the stars of the sixties folk revival. What their songs provided was something different – rich imagery, social comment and the politics of resistance. I remember the electric impact of PPM singing Jimmie Driftwood’s ‘Long Chain On’:

One night as I lay on my pillow,
moonlight as bright as the dawn
I saw a man come a walking,
he had a long chain on.

I heard his chains a clankin’,
they made a mournful sound,
Welded around his body,
draggin’ along the ground.

He stood beside my window,
he looked at me and he said
“I am so tired and hungry.
Give me a bite of your bread”

He didn’t look like a robber,
he didn’t look like a thief
His voice was as soft as the moonlight,
a face full of sorrow and grief.

I went into my kitchen,
fetched him a bowl full of meat
A drink and a pan of cold biscuits,
that’s what I gave him to eat

Though he was tired and hungry
a bright light came over his face
He bowed his head in the moonlight,
he said a beautiful grace.

I got my hammer and chisel,
offered to set him free
He looked at me and said softly,
“I guess we had best let it be.”

When he had finished his supper,
he thanked me again and again.
Though it’s been years since I’ve seen him,
still hear him draggin’ his chain.

You didn’t have to take on board the underlying religious import of these lyrics (I had grown up in a household where my mum was a fervent believer and my dad a fierce atheist, and by then I had followed him in rejecting organised religion) to feel the strange power of the imagery; the sense that eradicating hunger and injustice required more than one blow of a hammer and chisel: it needed a movement.

At 15 years old, hearing Peter Paul and Mary perform ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’  at the March on Washington in 1963 was transcendent. The trio reflected the moment in history, politics, and art with Dylan’s song. Civil rights activism was at its height, and ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ embodied the spirit of the time.

The song established Bob Dylan as the conscience of my generation, and PP&M as the voice of that conscience, culminating with their performance at the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his I Have A Dream speech. Their recording of the song had been released as a single just two months earlier,  in June 1963, and was an instant hit, selling over 300,000 copies in less than two weeks and eventually rising to number two on the U.S. charts.

 

 

Mary and the rest of the trio remained politically active, as can be seen in the 1971 YouTube video below. She was outspoken in her support for the civil-rights and antiwar movements, in sharp contrast to clean-cut folk groups like the Kingston Trio, which avoided making political statements. They had always combined their music with radical causes, both onstage and off. Their version of “If I Had a Hammer” became an anthem for racial equality. They were vehement in their opposition to the Vietnam War and in more rcent times performed at the 1995 anniversary of the Kent State shootings and at benefits for California strawberry pickers.

In a 1966 New York Times interview, Travers said the three worked well together because they respected one another. “There has to be a certain amount of love just in order for you to survive together,” she said. “I think a lot of groups have gone down the tubes because they were not able to relate to one another.”

Peter Paul & Mary: Blowin In The Wind (Tonight In Person 1966)

Peter Paul & Mary: Early Morning Rain (Tonight In Person 1966)

Peter Paul & Mary: Early in the Morning

Peter, Paul & Mary: If I Had A Hammer

Peter Paul & Mary: 500 Miles

Peter Paul & Mary: Washington Peace March, 1971

Happy birthday, Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger birthday

Pete Seeger is 90 today and BBC radio 4 marked his anniversary with an excellent programme in which Vincent Dowd celebrated the life and work of the folk singer and activist. Drawing on BBC archives and new interviews, he explored Seeger’s views on a range of issues and his hopes for the future under the leadership of Barack Obama, at whose inauguration he performed. The show featured an unplugged version of This Land is Your Land from Seeger himself, but Seeger maintained that his greatest joy as a performer is to lead others in sing-alongs: the only way music can effect change is through participation.

At his 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden tonight he must have been ecstatic since for nearly four and a half hours he and 51 other artists transformed the massive arena into an intimate campfire sing-along, where toddlers, senior citizens and everyone in between belted “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” “This Land is Your Land,” “Turn Turn Turn” and many others songs Seeger wrote or popularized over his seven-decade career. “There is no such thing as a wrong note,” Seeger said after leading a group rendition of “Amazing Grace” midway through the show, “just as long as you’re singing along.”The concert was a benefit for Seeger’s Clearwater environmental group that works to clean the Hudson River. A long evening of musical collaborations included Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Taj Mahal, Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie and others playing in many permutations. According to the Rolling Stone blog, highlights included Taj Mahal doing “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy,” The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Pete’s grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger doing Seeger’s anti-war tune “Bring ‘Em Home,” and Joan Baez and others singing “Jacob’s Ladder”.

“Pete is a walking, singing archive of American history,” Springsteen said during a long, moving speech. “He had the audacity and courage to sing in the voice of the American people. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger into the country’s illusions about itself.”

For the finale, every performer of the night crammed onto the stage for “This Land Is Your Land.” “I give you the words and you sing along,” Seeger told the crowd. As he did at Barack Obama’s inauguration, he included the often skipped verses about the relief office and the private property sign. After leaving the stage to “This Little Light Of Mine,” everybody returned for “Goodnight Irene” – which Seeger’s group the Weavers took to Number One in 1950.

Happy 90th Birthday Pete Seeger from Smithsonian

Pete Seeger/Tao Seeger/Preservation Hall Jazz Band, 24 April

On Friday, April 24, 2009 New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band was joined by legendary American singer/songwriter Pete Seeger, his grandson Tao, and their band for a very special recording session. Recorded a week before Pete’s 90th birthday celebration, this video shows a man who is still moved by the power of song.

“In addition to being America’s best-loved folk singer and an untiring environmentalist, Pete Seeger is a national treasure. He has been at the forefront of the labor movement, the struggle for Civil Rights, the peace and anti-war movements, and the fight for a clean world. He has been a beacon of hope for millions of people all over the world…” (from the Pete Seeger appreciation page – http://www.peteseeger.net)

The Water is Wide

John Gorka sings ‘The Water is Wide’ for a FolkAlley.com Extra in honour of Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday.

The water is wide, I cannot cross o’er,
But Neither have I the wings to fly.
Give me a boat, that will carry two,
And both shall row, my love and I.

Where love is planted, oh there it grows,
It grows and blossoms like a rose.
It has a sweet and pleasant smell
No flower can it excel.

A ship there is and she sails the sea,
She’s loaded deep as deep can be,
But not so deep as the love I’m in
I know not if I sink or swim.

I leaned my back against a young oak,
Thinking he were a trusty tree,
But first he bended and then he broke,
Thus did my love prove false to me.

O love is handsome and love is fine
And love’s a jewel when it is new
But leave it alone, it grows so cold
And fades away like morning dew.

Arlo Guthrie & Pete Seeger: If I Had A Hammer, August 1993


Folk America

BBC 4’s Folk America season finished tonight with a concert from the Barbican reuniting some of  the talents to emerge from the clubs of New York’s Greenwich Village in the sixties. Billy Bragg introduced Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn, Eric Andersen and Carolyn Hester, performing songs of their own and from their contemporaries.

The three Folk America documentaries that formed the centrepiece of the season were a little disappointing – covering familiar ground, with familiar clips and, rather surprisingly, finishing at the end of the sixties. Yet the best episode, the first, had explored the origins of folk in the various strands of American roots music in the twenties and thirties – what now is often classed as Americana. It would surely have been interesting to trace the way the Americana musicians of the last decade have often taken their inspiration from earlier folk music. And it seemed odd that the series focussed quite a bit on Pete Seeger, yet there he was performing at Obama’s inaugural concert and being honoured in Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome album and tour.

The opening Barbican concert of the season, Hollerers, Stompers and Old-Time Ramblers was hosted by Seasick Steve and showcased acts that represent the revival of the old-time musical traditions first recorded in the American South in the 1920s: Appalachian mountain string band music, vaudeville swing, junk shop blues, creole dance tunes and folk country ballads.  The standouts, I thought, were CW Stoneking (new to me) and Diana Jones.

Introduction to the documentary series

This segment features Alan Lomax, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.

Links

In praise of Pete Seeger

On Sunday Pete Seeger performed with Bruce Springsteen at the Obama pre-Inauguration concert (see previous post).  He sang  This Land is Your Land,  the “greatest song about America ever written” (Bruce Springsteen’s words) before 500,000 people and tens of millions more on television. Continue reading “In praise of Pete Seeger”