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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.