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In  October of 2013, my wife and I had the wonderful opportunity to spend an evening with Pete Seeger, long a favorite of ours. We were invited to be part of the studio audience for a broadcast of the television program, “Keeping Country Strong” on Access 23 TV. Pete was the guest of honor. Before the broadcast started, Pete came out and sat with the audience and I got to ask him a bunch of questions.

KCS 2.21.13 Pete Seeger-63Dottie Brune sitting next to Pete apparently singing oo-o-oh

 

FAVORITE SONGS

He said that right now he finds himself singing one he wrote in 1954, Quite Early Morning and When I Was Most Beautiful. The words to this one came from a woman he met in Japan who wrote Japanese poems that had been translated into English. Her name was Noriko Ibaragi. Pete saw the poem and set it to music. Pete does it with the banjo. Here is a performance from Pete’s album “At 89” sung by Pete’s niece, Sonya Cohen.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6oNpEiskTmA

Pete said he learned one of my favorites, Way Out There from Cisco Houston on a train trip from Boston to New York. I wish I could have been on that trip to hear the two of them yodeling and watch the reactions of the other passengers! The song was written by Bob Nolan of the Sons of the Pioneers.

Lee Hays of the Weavers came up with the words to If I Had a Hammer, using an old gospel song technique: Have a basic verse and change one word to get new verses. The song became a hit when Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul and Mary changed one note of the melody. Pete didn’t say which note (Damn!).

Woody Guthrie wrote This Land is Your Land on a hitchhiking trip through Pennsylvania to New York City. The origins of the song are well-known among folkies, but here is something we were surprised to learn: This Land was never recorded or released by a major music publisher. The song began to be included in children’s song books. The kids brought the song home and it proved to be so popular that, after 20 years of word-of-mouth circulation, finally was formally entered into the recorded repertoire.

Another thing we never knew: The Midnight Special is a prisoner song. The legend was that if the Midnight Special shined its light into a man’s prison cell, he would go free. Knowing that, the song makes a lot of sense.

BOB DYLAN

One point of controversy that has followed Pete (among many!) was his reaction to Bob Dylan’s electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The story that goes around is that Pete was so outraged about Dylan performing with an electric group that he tried to pull the plug on the speakers (or something like that). What actually happened was that Pete was upset because the instruments were so loud that you couldn’t hear the words. The song was Maggie’s Farm, which Pete likes a great deal. He asked the sound man to lower the instruments. The sound man said that that was the way the performers wanted it. Pete said “Well, if I had an axe, I’d cut the cable.” He had no objection to electric music (though many in the audience did!) and there was no pulling of plugs.

Pete respects Dylan’s work but disagrees with him as a performer, especially when, at the Newport Festival, he sat at the piano with his back to the audience. He did not have much use for Dylan’s mumbled articulation, but admires Willy Nelson: At those Farm Aid concerts, you can hear every word Willy sings.

WOODY GUTHRIE

Pete remembers Woody as always being very restless. “Every day – no, every hour — he had a little notebook and was writing something down . . . ” or drawing something on a pad of paper that he kept around.

Guthrie was mostly self-educated with the help of a couple of teachers who recognized his genius and supplied him with books at various times in his young years. He read them.

LEADBELLY

Huddie Ledbetter, “Leadbelly” was a very powerfully build man. He always wore a suit and tie and made fun of Pete, trying to be one of the common folk wearing jeans and work shirts. He was powerfully built and when he took his suit jacket off, he looked like a prize fighter with his rippling muscles. Leadbelly died of Lou Gehrig Disease, amyotropic lateral sclerosis.

Weavers recorded a song called Tzena, Tzena, Tzena. On the B side they put Leadbelly’s song Goodnight Irene. As it happened, Goodnight Irene became a smash hit and Tzena was kind of forgotten. Leadbelly died six months after Goodnight Irene would have made him a wealthy man.

BANJO FINGER PICKS

For you banjo players, I asked Pete about his unusual arrangement of finger picks. He plays with a long thumbnail, a steel finger pick in the conventional position on his index finger and steel picks straightened out and inverted on his middle and ring fingers. It looks to me like this is how he gets that crisp sound switching between frailing and three-finger style.

 

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Suze Rotolo in her iconic picture

Well, there’s really not much to remember because I never knew Suze Rotolo. It was years before I even learned who she was.

However, take a good look at this album cover. With all the information in the picture, the thing that strikes you is the young woman’s smile. The first time I saw this album all I could see was that smile. Many things passed through my mind. Was she really Dylan’s girlfriend? Or a model hired for the photo shoot? Who the hell is Bob Dylan, anyway? Wouldn’t it be great to have a girlfriend like that? How fortunate he is to have a beautiful girl like her clutching his arm with such obvious affection. Why does Dylan look so grim while her smile radiates the warmth of the sun? (Turns out that Dylan was freezing while she was bundled up with layers!)

Look at the rest of the photo: The fire escapes of the row houses; the VW microbus on the left and the 54(?) Chevy taxicab on the right (the photo was taken in 1963); the slush in the street; the steely grey winter sky. All winter and gritty Greenwich Village  life. Dylan looks like the skinny kid who still does not know how this is all going to end. Suze’s beautiful face warms the whole scene with her confidence and obvious affection. The album songs are listed on the front cover, among them Blowin’ in the Wind, probably Dylan’s most influential work. Whoever heard of such songs: Masters of War; Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall. Bob Dylan’s Dream; Talkin’ World War III Blues? The two figures seem to emerge from the vanishing point of the perspective indicating a sense of new directions and things that have not been heard of yet. If you were alive in that moment, the whole cover resonates with the possibilities that those times presented. Like Dylan, we didn’t know how it would end, but we were sure that it would be great mainly, I think, because of Suze’s smile.

We are told that Suze stayed with Dylan for four years. She said in an interview that she was not comfortable with the trappings of celebrity that began to surround Dylan as his success grew. Finally, she left for Italy to continue her art studies. She became a successful artist in her own right, married, raised a family, and had a successful career teaching at Parsons School of Design. She was a liberated woman before there was such a thing.

Suze inspired several Dylan songs. While he may have written about the happy times with her, the ones that got on albums were about the effect of her leaving: Don’t Think Twice, Boots of Spanish Leather, Girl from the North Country. And who wouldn’t be distraught after losing the young woman on the album cover?

Suze also influenced Dylan in other ways. She said that she was raised without television. She described her home as “poor in material things but rich in culture.” Family life revolved around books and recordings of all different kinds of music, including opera. All of this she shared with Dylan who did not have access to this kind of culture growing up. The things she showed him expanded his range of experience and influenced his own work.

Suze died of cancer last week. If you see pictures of her in later life, the beauty is still there, changed, certainly, but not diminished by age. What does that matter? For a certain generation, her beautiful smile will always remain in our memories. Reflecting on that riveting image will always recall times of joy, possibility, and beauty beyond description. I wonder if she ever knew what that smile meant to so many people?

Thanks, Suze.

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