Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger died early today. It popped up on my iPad as I was reading the morning news.

There is lots to say about Pete, most of it not by me. The New York Times’s obituary by Jon Pareles does justice to the man. His music speaks for itself. Because, as he would probably say, it’s not his music, it’s our music, of which he was one of the greatest exponents. So here are some samples.

He had a number-one hit in the US before I was born, with a Leadbelly song, Goodnight, Irene. As he wrote in his songbook American Favorite Ballads (Oak, 1961), “six months after Leadbelly died, this song of his sold two million copies on the hit parade.“. The Weavers played a reunion concert in Carnegie Hall in 1980, shortly before Lee Hayes died. Here is a video of The Weavers singing Goodnight, Irene at the reunion.

There is a splendid version of House of the Rising Sun recorded by Pete in 1958 on American Favorite Ballads volume 2. What a voice! These recordings now belong to the Smithsonian Institution, which took over Folkways Records. Pete writes in his book of the same name (Oak, 1961) that he learned it from Alan Lomax. It’s there as “The Rising Sun” in Alan’s book The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs (Penguin, 1964). The credits say it was originally in Lomax&Lomax’s Our Singing Country (Macmillan, NY, 1941). Lomax says “A ragged Kentucky Mountain girl recorded this modern Southern white song for me in 1937 in Middlesborough, Kentucky, the hardboiled town in the Cumberland Gap on the Tennessee border. This blues song of a lost girl probably derives from some older British piece. At any rate, the house of the Rising Sun occurs in several risqué English songs, and the melody is one of several for the ancient and scandalous ballad Little Musgrave“.

I sing and play in a band, and we sing The Fox, about a fox who steals a goose and a duck out of the farmer’s pen to take home for his cubs to eat: “Daddy, Daddy, you gotta go back again ‘cos it must be a mighty fine town-O!” As Pete says (op.cit.), “it’s nice to find the fox for once treated as the hero“. We also sing the ubiquitous song “Rye Whiskey”, otherwise known as “Drunken Hiccoughs” – here is Pete’s version, also on AFB. And just last night we were working on a version of Turn, Turn, Turn, a setting of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 from the King James Bible, one of the great works of English literature. It turns out to be a very difficult song to sing well, but for Pete it seems to be effortless. There is a version by Judy Collins and of course the Byrds’ Top 20 hit (with a notably slim David Crosby), by which I remember being very struck as a teenager in the 1960’s. Fifty years on, the Seeger version stands out as timeless.

So what’s my connection, besides re-singing the music? Thinner than I would like. I never saw, heard or met Pete. But I have a Seeger number of 3, same as my Erdös number. (See the footnote for “Seeger number” – I couldn’t get internal reference to work.)

How I came by my Seeger number. When I was a kid, I heard Malvina Reynolds’s Little Boxes, which was a big hit on the BBC. Malvina was a collaborator of Pete. When I got to Berkeley in the 1970’s, I remember visiting San Francisco and going down towards Daly City I saw all these “little boxes … all the same” on the hillside. It turns out that that Daly City development was the exact inspiration for the song. It’s not such a coincidence, more a déjà vu – on the original video for “Little Boxes” played on the BBC there was a photo of these very same houses. Malvina’s accompanist on that video, and at many gigs, was a musician and composer named Janet Smith. I bumped into Janet one day at a music store in Walnut Square in Berkeley. The owner, who I seem to remember was called Mike, was a classical guitarist who had a stock of medieval and baroque sheet music. I had decided to take up playing the recorder again (I prefer the German concept of Blockflöte – block-flute), so I used to go in there every Saturday to look through his stocks and buy what I could. Janet was looking for some folk-type-wind-instrument player to play music she was composing for the Berkeley Repertory Theater’s production of William Saroyan’s My Heart Is In The Highlands. So I got to be the flautist.

That was 1981, I think. My parents visited late in the year, and I took them along to a production. Producing theatre was my Dad’s favorite thing to do as a teacher of English, and they liked the performance. I didn’t say anything about the music. Neither did they. The Rep had spelt my name wrong in the program. I pointed it out at the end. Dad said “Yes, we thought that sounded a bit like you”. I am still unsure whether that was meant as a compliment.

There is a wider scheme of things. Pete is generation two in the tradition of song collection in the field. That started with the availability of electrical recording equipment, specifically with John A. Lomax in the 1930’s, aided by his son Alan, who was a near-contemporary of Pete (four years older). As his biography notes, Alan was a founder of the notion of, and collector of, world music. We owe a lot to John and Alan, amongst other things the collection of the Archive of American Folk Song in the US Library of Congress, now part of the Library’s American Folklife Center. Pete and Alan knew each other well, of course.

Such collection, at least for music of the British Isles and Ireland and its continuance in North America, is now more or less over, with the advent of festivals and iPods and iPads and electronic devices in every North American, British and Irish pocket. If there is an unnoted singer in this tradition left anywhere nowadays I would be surprised. But, please, I would be delighted to be surprised!

The US folk-music-archival tradition is not that long. It started with Francis James Child, whose life spanned the nineteenth century and who was the first Professor of English at Harvard (before that, he was Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory). Child researched the folk-poetry tradition. He published in the mid-1800’s from his compilations, and realised that most of the work he was publishing stemmed from the Reverend Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, published in 1765. His collaboration with Frederik Furnivall, the founder of the Early English Text Society, turned up a Folio of Percy’s Reliques, and Child started on his 8-volume masterwork, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. (Scans of all volumes are available through the link.) Child didn’t finish his work – that was left to his successor George Kittredge, who completed the task in 1898. Less than a decade later, John Lomax turned up at Harvard with his interest in folk songs, in particular cowboy songs (Lomax was Texan) and Kittredge encouraged him. When Lomax was back in Texas, he published Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.

Child was a literature specialist. He included no tunes. Those were supplied in the 1950’s-1970’s by Bertrand Harris Bronson, a Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in his four-volume The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, a reprint of which is again available. I recommend to anyone interested in songs and tunes his smaller one-volume resume, The Singing Tradition of Child’s Popular Ballads. I never met Bronson either, but I used to play blockflute, then fiddle at least once a week in Moe Hirsch’s Tuesday-lunchtime old-time music sessions under a tree on the UC Berkeley campus with Bronson’s assistant Lonnie Herman, a Native American professional folklorist. That’s that for tenuous connections, I promise. I guess they are here because there’s a lot of richness in this world which passes us by until it becomes too late, and there is a lot of that in what I am feeling now.

Pete’s not the only Seeger of note in the field-collection and performance tradition. His half-brother Mike was an avid collector and performer, founder of the New Lost City Ramblers. The song Freight Train, composed by a teenage Elizabeth Cotten, who worked for the Seeger family, was sung by her to Mike. I think the NLCR first published another of our band’s songs, Man of Constant Sorrow, which they got from a 1920’s recording of Emry Arthur, who claimed (to someone else) to have written it. They refer to Ralph Stanley’s “G version” of the song as a “classic recording”. It sure is. It’s most recently associated with Dan Tyminski, of the “Foggy Bottom Boys” (that is, singwise, he and Ron Block) in the Coen Brothers’ film Brother, Where Art Thou?.

Finally, a song from Pete’s songbook that I heard lots on the radio as a child, this time sung by its great exponent Burl Ives: The Big Rock Candy Mountain, which I am listening to as I write. It’s just such a jolly hobo fantasy, composed and then sung by people with nothing other than the clothes on their backs. Music is life. For them. For him. For us, for it’s ours.

** Seeger number: length of the shortest path in the graph of who has jointly performed with whom, with root Pete Seeger.

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