Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Me & Folkmusic, Part Three

Pete Seeger was born in New York City in 1919, the son of the eminent musicologist Charles Seeger (1886- 1979), the stepson of composer Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-53), the nephew of the poet Alan Seeger (1888-1916), and the half brother of Peggy and Mike Seeger. In 1938 Seeger dropped out of Harvard University and traveled through the U.S., singing and collecting songs. He later worked with Alan Lomax on the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song.

Seeger formed the Almanac Singers in 1940 with Woody Guthrie, and the Weavers in 1948. In 1955 he was investigated by the House Committee on Unamerican Activities, and in 1962 charges against him were dismissed. He later became active in environmental preservation.

Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912. He traveled throughout the U.S. during the Great Depression, doing odd jobs and singing for a living. Guthrie's autobiography, Bound for Glory was published in 1943. He died in New York City of Huntington's chorea.

I met a fellow in New Haven who claimed to have been in the same Communist Party Cell in Chicago with Pete Seeger and Studs Turkle, but that was unlikely. In any case it was not so much their left-leaning politics as their personal characteristics that made them beloved.

Pete Seeger had a charisma that had to be experienced: he could get any group singing, from upper-middles in a theater to grubbies at a festival.
Woodie's "protest" songs had a human dimension that made them universal, in contrast to the easily-forgotten "See how oppressed I am" imitations. If anything their politics hurt folkmusic more than it helped the left wing.
It is, however, fascinating to see even Republicans singing "This Land is Your Land", which has more to do with agrarian reform than jingoism.
At the same time the scholarly approach was represented by John Lomax, his son Alan, and the people they collected and discovered, like Leadbelly (Hudie Ledbetter).

By the time I graduated from MIT in 1950 McCarthyism had put its dampening hand even on Pete and Woody. In the beginning of 1951 I got drafted for the Korean War and ended up as an enlisted man in a laboratory in Maryland doing classified research on defenses against radiological warfare.

I was in an atmosphere where drawing attention to connections with left wing politics, no matter that the basis of the connection was aesthetic rather than ideological, would have been not only "bad taste" but potentially dangerous. One chemistry Ph.D., a Canadian who let himself get drafted because he wanted US Citizenship, was relegated to Dugway proving ground watching over nerve gas munitions simply because, being Canadian, he couldn't get a clearance.

I was not about to encourage the FBI to pore over my connection with The People's Bookstore in Boston or People Songs.

By 1953 I had done my service but, being broke, agreed to work for the Army for a year to put some money in my pocket. In 1954 I entered graduate school at Columbia. Living with my parents on Long Island and studying nuclear physics in the late '50s under the Korean War GI Bill was difficult because the GI Bill didn't even fully pay the tuition. I spent most of my spare time working as a consultant in the aerospace industry on Long Island.

I did manage to attend some "lecture- demonstrations" done for Columbia's adult education program: six were by Pete Seeger and another six by Joseph Marais and his wife, Miranda. Before the war Marais had been doing a radio program that featured South African (Boer) folkmusic. Marais and Miranda had met while doing propaganda broadcasts during the War, and their repertoire as a couple was more European than African. This enabled them to avoid the question of apartheid, which would have made their liberal audiences uncomfortable.

Folkmusic recordings were not to be found in the ordinary record store, but I was living with my parents in Hempstead, L. I.., where a record store was started by a fellow known as "Swede" Olsen. He had some scandinavian dance music records and, as we got more friendly, he would point out "world music" records he thought I would be interested in.

I did buy one Folkways record during this period: an exchange student singing swedish folksongs. I learned one and sang it to my mother who said "Where did you learn your grandfather's favorite song?" But not many american folksingers knew swedish, and fewer audiences understood it.
At that time (say 1957-60) Vanguard issued a couple of collections of field recordings made in england and scotland (edited by Ken Goldstein), and also a collection of songs from the 1959 Newport Festival. That had one cut of a gospel song done by a moderately well-known singer named Bob Gibson, together with an unknown young woman with a remarkable voice: Joan Baez.

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