Sunday, May 3, 2009

Happy 90th Pete

Pete Seeger turns 90 today and there are events honouring him all over the world including the massive tribute concert at Madison Square Gardens in New York. I'll be attending a hootenanny in Pete's honour tonight in Ottawa.

I've been listening to Pete since I was a young kid and was 20 years old in 1974 when I first met and worked with him when I was an area co-ordinator/stage manager at the Mariposa Folk Festival and Pete's concert was on my stage. Doing the math, I see that Pete then was the same age I am now.

I've interviewed Pete a number of times, both for radio and newspapers. When Pete did a surprise Canadian tour of small venues last summer I interviewed him for the July 3, 2008 issue of the Montreal Gazette (the article also appeared in several other newspapers). Here is that article as well as my review of Pete's latest album from the current issue of Sing Out! Magazine.

Pete Seeger returns to Montreal

Mike Regenstreif
Special To The Gazette

The last time I interviewed Pete Seeger was in 1999 just as he was about to turn 80. He was planning to stay close to his Hudson River Valley home and just play a few songs occasionally for school kids or at benefit concerts. It was unlikely, he said then, that he’d travel far enough from home to perform in Montreal again.

Almost a decade later, though, the still-vigorous Seeger is on his way back to Montreal. His July 5 concert here kicks off a quickly-arranged, and quickly sold-out, tour of small venues that also takes him to Toronto, for two nights, Kingston and Ottawa in the company of acoustic blues revivalist Guy Davis and his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger of the folk-rocking Mammals. The three will share the stage, swapping songs and backing each other.

Reached at his home overlooking the Hudson River in upstate New York, Seeger told me he has fond memories of performing in Montreal.

“Sam Gesser hired me when nobody else would,” Seeger said, referring to the late Montreal impresario who broke into the concert business with a Seeger concert in 1952 when most of the folksinger’s performing opportunities were lost to the McCarthy-era blacklist. Gesser, who died April 1, brought Seeger to Montreal often over the next four decades.

Seeger is one of the most revered musicians of all time and has been a major influence on the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen – who’s done two albums of songs he learned from Seeger LPs – and almost everyone else who’s picked up a banjo or acoustic guitar in the past 60 years.

Seeger’s lengthy résumé includes forming two legendary folk groups: the Almanac Singers, with Woody Guthrie, before both shipped out to serve in the Second World War; and the Weavers, the group that brought folk music to the pop charts with Goodnight Irene and Tzena Tzena Tzena in 1949 before being blacklisted. Seeger has written or co-written scores of enduring songs, including Where Have All the Flowers Gone and If I Had a Hammer, has made hundreds of recordings, and has been at the forefront of the civil rights, peace and environmental movements.

“I really don’t take concert tours anymore,” Seeger said when asked about what made him decide to do this four-city Canadian jaunt. “But my grandson, Tao, is a great performer, and Guy Davis is a great performer, so I decided to do a few things with them. The five concerts I’m doing in Canada are more than I’m doing almost anywhere else.”

Talking to Seeger now, he seems motivated by many of the same concerns that spurred his activism decades ago. “I think there’s a chance the human race will survive,” he said. “I’m not as pessimistic as I was after Hiroshima,” referring to the atomic blast that spurred a lifetime’s devotion to the peace movement. During the Iraq War, Seeger has been leading weekly peace vigils near his home.

One of Seeger’s greatest successes as an activist has been leading the movement to clean up the Hudson River. The river was horribly polluted when he founded the Clearwater organization in the 1970s. Now, he points out, people swim safely in many parts of the Hudson.

In separate interviews, Guy Davis and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger both spoke about being directly influenced by Seeger as children.

Davis’s parents, the actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, were longtime friends of the Seeger family. In 1960, eight-year-old Guy developed a love for the banjo while attending Camp Killooleet, a kids’ camp in Vermont that was run by John Seeger, Pete’s brother. Ossie Davis bought his son a banjo and the youngster learned the instrument from Seeger’s classic book, How to Play the Five-String Banjo.

“Over the years, Pete sparked my interest in Big Bill Broonzy and Lead Belly, both of whom he had known, and my interest in the 12-string guitar began to grow. One thing led to another and I wound up going on the road with Pete as an opening act in the mid-70s,” said Davis. “This tour's going to be a wonderful hoot.”

Rodriguez-Seeger grew up playing music with his grandfather and began performing concerts and recording with him as a teenager in the 1980s. “We played concerts together for about 13 years.” he recalled.

Wanting to articulate his own musical ideas, Rodriguez-Seeger formed a trio with Sarah Lee Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie’s daughter, and her husband, Johnny Irion, in 1999. Two years later, he hooked up with Ruth Ungar and Michael Merenda as the Mammals.

With the Mammals currently on hiatus, Rodriguez-Seeger recently performed a concert with his grandfather and Davis at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York.

“We had a really good time,” said Rodriguez-Seeger. “We got home and Grandpa was bouncing off the wall with excitement. ‘Let’s do that again,’ he said.”

The Canadian tour was quickly arranged and generations of folk fans eagerly snapped up all available tickets.

At 89
Appleseed 1113

Last July Pete Seeger did a quickly sold-out four-city Canadian tour playing in small venues. Those of us who were lucky enough to get tickets – the audience I was part of in Montreal ranged from young children to elderly folk fans who were there at Pete’s first concert in the city in 1952 – quickly saw that at 89, the patriarchal figure of the folk scene (and, certainly, of Sing Out! Magazine) remains, despite his diminished vocal powers, an incredibly charismatic performer. And that comes through on this CD recorded shortly before that tour last summer.

Much of this 65-minute CD is devoted to new or previously unrecorded songs like “If It Can’t Be Reduced,” a musical lesson in environmental responsibility inspired by a resolution passed in 2007 by the city council of Berkeley, California, and “Wonderful Friends,” a salute to the values of friendship that has Pete trading verses with David Bernz, a member of Work o’ the Weavers, who co-produced the album with Pete.

There are also new versions of older songs including a powerful version of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” and “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” the Israeli song that was one of the Weavers’ biggest hits. Although the song’s original Hebrew lyrics celebrated the arrival of soldiers in a village, this version has been rewritten as a peace anthem with lyrics in Hebrew, Arabic and English. There are also instrumental banjo tunes and some of Pete’s pearls of spoken word wisdom.

In addition to Bernz and other members of Work o’ the Weavers there are a number of other singers and musicians, mostly from the Hudson Valley area, who join Pete on the CD. Among the collaborators is Pete’s niece, Sonya Cohen of Last Forever, who sings a poignant version of “When I Was Most Beautiful.” ---Mike Regenstreif

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