Friday, May 25, 2012

Pete Seeger – The Complete Bowdoin College Concert 1960

The Complete Bowdoin College Concert 1960
Smithsonian Folkways
Back in May of 1999, I did a long radio interview with Pete Seeger on the occasion of his 80th birthday. It was a fascinating look back at a remarkable folk music career which, by then, had stretched over the course of six decades. By now, you can add another 13 years onto that amazing time frame.

Pete told me was that he considered the countless college and community concerts he did during the time he was blacklisted in the 1950s and ‘60s to be, perhaps, the most important work he ever did. Those concerts – and Pete’s seemingly endless stream of Folkways LPs – introduced thousands to folk songs, folk music, and most particularly, to the joys of music making and communal music making. A Pete Seeger concert was always about people making music together. Pete may have been alone on stage, but every person in the audience was always an essential component to his music-making.

This time period was surely a difficult one for Pete. The McCarthy-era blacklist effectively banned Pete – and many others – from mainstream concerts, radio, record labels and network television. Hanging over his head was a contempt of Congress indictment for refusing to answer questions about his political beliefs before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 (he was tried, convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison on the charge in 1961; the case was thrown out on appeal), and right wing groups would often picket his concerts or try to prevent them from taking place.

While there are any number of complete Pete Seeger concert albums that have been released over the years, The Complete Bowdoin College Concert 1960, released 52 years after it was recorded at a Maine college, becomes the earliest such example. And although it dates from a few years before I started going to Pete Seeger concerts, I’ve been to enough of them over the past 45 years (and having listened to all of the other complete concert recordings that are out there) to know that it must have been a fairly typical example of a 1960-era Pete Seeger concert: topical songs, traditional folk songs, some of his own material, some borrowed from other songwriters, some international folk songs, some Lead Belly, some of the folk hits of Petes old group the Weavers. The only thing that surprises me is that he sang no Woody Guthrie songs that night. In that 1999 interview, Pete told me he was on a mission in those days to introduce the songs of Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie to new generations.

Most of the songs Pete sang that night at Bowdoin are familiar standards of his repertoire. Among them are “The Bells of Rhymney,” “The Water is Wide,” “Deep Blue Sea,” “Wimoweh,” an early version of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” the Israeli song “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” “Goodnight Irene” and “Viva La Quince Brigada.” But, as I noted in my review for another complete concert recording, Live in ’65, “despite the fact that I’ve heard Pete’s various recordings of such songs hundreds, if not thousands, of times, I never tire of hearing them again, and of hearing the individual nuances of a particular performance.”

There are also a few songs I’m not sure I’ve heard Pete sing before like Ernie Marrs’ “Quiz Show,” a commentary on the Twenty One scandal from the 1950s set to the tune of “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” the sea chantey “Hieland Laddie,” and Big Bill Broonzy’s “I Had a Dream.”

Certainly among the highlights is a really bluesy version of “Summertime” that seems much more powerful than his American Favorite Ballads studio version.

Like any other Pete Seeger concert I’ve attended, and there have been many, and almost every Pete Seeger record I’ve listened to, and there have been many more of those, The Complete Bowdoin College Concert 1960 cannot fail but to be an inspiring experience. And, like the audience 52 years ago, you will be singing along to many of these songs as you listen. You can’t help yourself.

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--Mike Regenstreif

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