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Saturday morning quote #14: Pete Seeger

August 20, 2011

Pete Seeger is a living legend who has spent the better part of a long life promoting the authentic use of music, taking what we call folk music a step beyond that of a social medium to that of a medium for social justice.

“I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.”

Pete Seeger’s aura of integrity is inspirational.  His stubborn sense of promoting what is right honors the quiet dignity of ordinary working people; the dignity of a man like John Salyer, the source of a huge number of traditional fiddle tunes, and a man who refused to participate in allowing his music to be recorded for commercial reasons because he did not wish his music to be absconded and used to enrich some city slicker.

Pete Seeger has always fostered a sense of sharing and participation in folk music, unfortunately in stark contrast to many people today performing ‘traditional’ music.  Today, the focus seems to favor an urban edginess and a dark ‘punkiness’ – as though the players are implying that the music possesses a level of hip that goes beyond the sparseness of its simple melodic and harmonic structures.  Traditional tunes are simple and repetitive because they are meant to be easily grasped and shared with others, and many are meant to be danced to.  Many players today betray that simplicity by adding electronic noise or a ‘world music’ beat in order to shroud the music with an ill-fitting sophistication – like a farmer punking up with a mohawk and a nose ring.  Well, real farmers know the nose ring is meant to keep the bull under control.

“Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple.”

Pete Seeger’s book, How to Play the 5-String Banjo, was my introduction to music – and in a roundabout way, to the lute.  In his explanation of his banjo tablature system, Pete mentions that it is a simple form of lute tablature.  His lighthearted yet informative style of writing was a perfect inspiration to get started playing a simple instrument that, in capable hands, can express a limitless range of emotions.  While masterful players today like Rob MacKillop are showing us what is possible with a variety of banjos, I gravitated toward the close interplay of fiddle and banjo peculiar to the wonderful dance music of the Southern Appalachians.  My mentor with this music is the estimable Kerry Blech, an expert fiddler and folklorist whose warmth and generosity represents the gold standard of folk music’s true purpose, and how it should be shared with others.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you are probably asking yourself: What does this mean in the context of Early Music?

This writer is firm in the opinion that the social music ethic ought to apply to Early Music since, for the most part, it is functional music.  Aside from the significant body of (functional) sacred music, a large part of what we consider Early Music is nothing more than social music that was meant to be played for domestic entertainment at home with family and friends.  When it is taken out of that context and performed on the concert stage by classically-trained musicians who are slumming it, there is a distinct divergence from authenticity.

“Well, normally I’m against big things. I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” — Pete Seeger on how he felt about attending his big 90th birthday bash.

Pete Seeger is a force of nature: He identified and championed a tradition of music as a social medium, but he also set the tone for music as a participatory art form.  Everything he says and does implies that you can do this yourself – and you really should, by the way.

Addendum:  Pete Seeger passed away at age 94 on January 27, 2014.  We mourn his loss and honor his memory.

  1. I can’t tell you how honoured I am to be mentioned on the same page as the great Pete Seeger! In his overwhelming presence, I am too frail to frail…

  2. Amen! I learned what I know about clawhammer from Dwight Diller and what’s always stuck with me is the emphasis on rhythm. It takes an bluegrass ensemble to generate the same rhythmic “drive” as a single clawhammer banjo player ( who’s not too full of him(or her)self).

    Not to lessen the value of Pete Seeger, but you unless you’ve heard Fred Cockerham play “June Apple” on his Formica fingerboard, fretless banjo( High Atmosphere – 1965 – re-released ?), you just haven’t lived a complete life.

    Stop groveling, Rob.It’s embarrassing…and so…English >:))

  3. Thanks Garry. I’m sure Rob will appreciate my pointing out that he is actually from Scotland.

    In fact, I am familiar with the playing of Fred Cockerham, initially through treasured tapes my friend Kerry made himself at sessions on Tommy Jarrell’s porch. I love the clarity of his playing on High Atmosphere, a collection of field recordings made by John Cohen, but I have to say my absolute favorite track is “A Conversation with Death” by Lloyd Chandler. (How sad, how sad…)

  4. Let’s not forget Frank Profitt or Henry Reed. I know Rob is from Scotland: I was following the prescribed rules of internet etiquette and endeavoring to deliver a subtle, but piquant insult. Now, you’ve gone and ruined it :))

    Rob: I’ve obviously got some checking up to do – I wasn’t aware that you were doing banjo work. The last I remember ( and of course it’s been years) you were doing quite a bit with Fuenllana and the vihuela de mano.

  5. I would like to share a rendition of Where Have All the Flowers Gone, i play blues but wanted to honor Mr Seeger with my efforts.. peace & blues Paul Miles … Mr. Seeger coming to get banjo lessons

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