Archive for August, 2008

Pete Seeger to Perform on August 26th (An Interview)











Music has always been a way of interacting with others for singer Pete Seeger, even though this famous minstrel says he’d rather be a hermit.
“It’s the only way to be an honest person in this world,” he says. “Once you start participating in the world, you start being hypocritical.”
In spite of himself he stepped out into the world, compelled to reach others through music. Once he stepped out, he noticed his surroundings needed improving. He tackled issues using his musical ability – a tool given to him by his father, a music teacher.
On Aug. 26 at 6 p.m., Seeger is scheduled to perform at the Paramus Bandshell. North Jersey Media Group columnist Gene Myers recently talked with Seeger about his family, music, activism and his friendship with another famous bard, Woody Guthrie. Myers even had to answer a few of Seeger’s questions and do some harmonizing because no one comes away from Seeger without having learned a song.
Gene Myers: Can you tell me about your earliest memory of music?
Pete Seeger: I don’t remember anything under 3 years old, but my mother played a very good violin and my father accompanied her on a folding pump organ. When I was only 2 years old – I have pictures of this in my book -my father would hold me on his lap while he was playing the little organ and my mother was playing her fiddle. I must have been conscious of it. I did like to hear my father play Chopin etudes on the piano. But what I really liked was when he’d let me play with one finger some melody while he improvised. I’d play on the upper half of the piano and he’d play all around the lower half of the piano.
GM: The next epiphany also came with help from your father…
PS: At 17, I got out of high school. That summer my father took me to the Folk Song and Dance Festival in Asheville, North Carolina. And I suddenly found people making music who didn’t have the faintest idea of what it was to read music. They just played by ear. Members of their family played music and they picked it up from them. I remember Mrs. Samantha Bumgarner in her 50s in a rocking chair with a banjo. She covered the head of her banjo with flowers and butterflies. It was very colorful. She was singing about adventurous things in old times.
GM: How did you come up with the phrase written on the face of your own banjo?
PS: I made it up. Woody [Guthrie], had on his guitar “This machine kills fascists” in World War II. And after World War II, he kept it on, and we said, “Woody, Hitler is dead. Mussolini is dead. Take the sign off.” He said, “These fascists come along every time the rich people get the generals to help them stay in control.” I wanted to have something a little more peaceful: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” While it’s true, there are still people in the world that hate, small groups here and small groups there…and the stupid scientists invented horrible things that they can do if they get the right weapons.
GM: Would you talk a little bit about your relationship to Woody Guthrie?
PS: He was seven years older than I was and vastly more experienced…In 1940, when I met Woody Guthrie, he taught me how to hitchhike and ride freight trains…He said, “That guy Seeger is the youngest man I ever knew. He don’t drink. He don’t smoke. He don’t chase girls. He’s weird!” But I had a very good ear and I could accompany anything he played, the first time through. I didn’t have to hear it twice.
GM: When you started out on your musical journey, where did you hope it would take you?
PS: I was looking for a job as a newspaperman and failing utterly to get one. A school teacher said, “Pete, come sing some of your songs for my class. I can get $5 for you.” A lot of people had to work all day to get $5 then. There I got $5 just for having fun for an hour. I went and took the money and quit looking for an honest job [laughing]. Pretty soon, I was singing at another school and then another school. I got jobs singing at summer camps, and then 10 years later, the kids were in college. And after World War II, I went from college to college.
GM: Why did you want to be a journalist?
PS: [I was] thinking it was a way to save the world from probable end. Einstein supposed to have said this: “Two infinite things: one is the universe and the other is human stupidity.” Then he adds, “I am not sure about the universe.”
GM: When did you get a sense that music was taking you much further than college to college?
PS: I didn’t. I could have kicked the bucket in 1959 because along came a lot of young people who picked up on what I was doing, great songwriters like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joni Mitchell, Buffy Saint Marie and so on, a lot of them. I really could have kicked the bucket and 90 percent of my life’s work was done.
GM: What was the 90 percent?
PS: I showed you didn’t need to make a living by singing in nightclubs, or singing on television or radio. You could sing songs that really meant something.
GM: That’s what you gave to music. What did music give to you?
PS: Oh, it’s fun and a really great melody gives you hope for the future of the world. For 60 years I’ve said we have a 50/50 chance of there being a human race here in 200 years. But I said that largely because that implies that any one of us might be the grain of sand to tip the scales the right way.
GM: Do you think that the activism that happened in the 60s could happen again anytime soon?
PS: Which part of the 60s – another endless war?
GM: People getting inspired to start making noise and do things on their own…
PS: Well, that is going on now but most newspapers don’t report it because it’s all such small things. There are 800 community gardens in New York City. Do they get in the newspaper? No. A dozen people here and a couple of dozen there, or three or four somewhere else…Nobody is writing about them. But I think that is the big news of this decade. Have you read the book by Paul Hawken? Do you know who he is?
GM: No, I don’t.
A small business man…[spells his name] H.A.W.KE.N. His book is called “Blessed Unrest.” You should read it. I am serious. He figures that there are thousands of little things going on in this country, usually local. There is also a lovely book about community gardens called “Seed Folks” written by Paul Fleischman. It’s about a community garden in Cleveland…After a pause, he muses further…
It may go down to failure because the TV is such a strong thing. I’ve got a 14-year-old granddaughter that looks at TV and is getting together with boys and she thinks I’m a bore.
GM: How many music channels are on that TV?
PS: I don’t know. I never look at it. I often quote John Philip Sousa, who was a great bandleader. In 1910, he said, “What will happen to the American voice now that the phonograph has been invented?” He was right. Men used to sing in bars. Now there is a TV there. All women used to sing lullabies to their kids. Now, some do, but most don’t. Put the kid in front of the tube. He’ll fall asleep soon.
GM: Does singing a song for an audience feel different now than it did 30 years ago, or at different phases of your life?
PS: These days, I am out to teach audiences this little thing…I say “Do you know this song?” ‘You Are My Sunshine’ [singing] and of course everybody knows it. “Who knows the high part?” I ask playing two notes at once [singing the harmony] and by gosh, when we sing the song a lot of people are singing the high part and you hear them both at once, instead of just the melody.



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Clearwater to move headquarters to Beacon

Clearwater to move headquarters to Beacon


BEACON – The City of Beacon is fast becoming an environmental hub for the Hudson Valley. The environmental group Clearwater is going to move its headquarters from Poughkeepsie to Beacon as the latest environmental move in the city. The Beacon Sloop Club is also headquartered on the Hudson and the Scenic Hudson Land Trust is developing a green project on the riverfront.

Beacon is already host to the Institute for Rivers and Estuaries with a campus being developed on the Hudson and offices on Main Street.

Beacon Mayor Steven Gold said the move by Clearwater is a perfect fit.

“The branding of Beacon as being a center for environmental education is important for the city going forward. It will bring in a lot of tourism revenue and it is, in today’s world, a very responsible and a very proud for that to be what we will be known for.”

Clearwater Executive Director Jeffrey Rumpf said Beacon rolled out the welcome mat. “It’s really a city that is open and receptive to what green life, green support can mean is very important to us and is very in touch with our founder and his vision to create a legacy now with Clearwater and he turns 90 next year and Clearwater turns 40,” he said.

That founder, of course, is famed folk singer and environmentalist Pete Seeger, a resident of Beacon.

The new location for Clearwater’s headquarters will be at the University Settlement Camp in what is known as the White House. The sloop Clearwater will dock in Beacon harbor.

The terms of the agreement call for Clearwater to put work into restoring the building and adjoining grounds in lieu of rent. Mayor Steven Gold said at some future point when the rent owed and the work performed are equal, Clearwater will pay cash for rent.

It is estimated the city would have had to spend between $100,000 and $200,000 or more to restore the building, the mayor said.

“The future payoff for Beacon will be the tourism that the sloop Clearwater will bring to Main Street and the branding we will acquire as a leading center for environmental education,” said Gold.


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Sing Along With the Seegers – Westminster, MD – August 8th

Sing along with the Seegers

By Brandon Oland, Times Staff Writer

Friday, August 08, 2008

While strumming his banjo, Pete Seeger will scan the crowd, searching for mouths that are not moving.

When Seeger is on stage, he expects the crowd to sing along with him.

If he catches enough audience members with lips clasped, he’ll admonish them.

“I hear some of you singing well,” he’s said on more than one occasion. “Others are sitting back with your lips tight maintaining your academic objectivity.”

Before long, everyone is singing.

Expect the masses to belt out the lyrics when Seeger, 89, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member and one of the most influential folk musicians of the 20th century, performs at 8 p.m. Friday at WMC Alumni Hall at McDaniel College in Westminster.

The concert, a Common Ground on the Hill fundraiser, will also feature Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Pete’s grandson, and longtime family friend and accomplished jazz musician Guy Davis.

Despite approaching his 90th birthday, Seeger is scheduled to perform 25 times this year.

His voice quivers. He doesn’t move as fast as he used to.

But he’s still able to lead the masses in song.

“When Grandpa performs,” Rodriguez-Seeger said, “he’s the ringleader.”

Supporting his causes

The phone is always ringing at Pete Seeger’s Beacon, N.Y., home.

Unless Seeger is feeling tired, he answers, graciously devoting his time to speak to reporters, promoters, friends and family.

“That’s my main problem,” Seeger said. “The mail comes in by the bushel. The telephone rings every 5 minutes.”

During a phone interview last week, Seeger answered a few questions directly.

Others, he deflected, choosing to talk about his liberal political views and the causes he believes in.

Seeger controls the conversation. It’s always been that way.

Seeger’s legacy is two-fold. He will be remembered for co-writing classic folk songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”

But his ability to stand up for his beliefs has also gained him notoriety.

During the communist witchhunts of the 1950s, Seeger’s band, the Weavers, was blacklisted by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

He lost his recording contract with Decca records.

While other entertainers had their careers ruined by being blacklisted, Seeger persevered. He served a brief jail stint in the ’50s before emerging as a Columbia Records artist in 1959.

“All of America was facing a lot of problems then,” Seeger said, “not just a few of us.”

Most of Seeger’s 25 performances this year serve as fundraisers for causes he supports.

Seeger has served as a Common Ground on the Hill advisory board member. He attended Common Ground, a two-week music and arts festival held each summer at McDaniel College, in 2001 and speaks fondly about executive director Walt Michael.

Seeger performed before sellout crowds at five shows in Canada in July, raising $70,000 for the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada that promotes strong and healthy communities in developing countries.

Rodriguez-Seeger performed alongside his grandfather in all five shows in Canada.

“I’m always happiest somehow when I’m playing for a cause,” Rodriguez-Seeger said. “I think that’s what also makes him happiest.”

Sharing the stage

Rodriguez-Seeger said his grandfather has turned down several opportunities to perform in recent years.

He said his grandfather wanted to slow down a bit after decades on the road.

But two months ago, Seeger seemed delighted after he performed for children at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde, N.Y.

“He was bouncing off the walls after that,” Rodriguez-Seeger said.

Rodriguez-Seeger said he thinks his grandfather enjoyed the show because he was asked to perform and nothing more.

Thus, Rodriguez-Seeger has become his grandfather’s road manager, organizing concerts, coming up with travel arrangements and handling interviews.

Rodriguez-Seeger, 26, has been performing with his grandfather since he was 14. Guy Davis, the son of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, joins the Seegers on stage.

He calls Seeger “Uncle Pete” and has been a close family friend for decades.

Together, the three take the stage, leading a performance that is part sing-along, part concert.

Sometimes, Seeger will lead the crowd in singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

But, when Seeger gets to the final stanza, he will instruct the crowd to change the lyrics.

The song ends “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh why, can’t I?”

Seeger prefers to change the “I” to “we.”

“Either we’re all going to make it over the rainbow,” Seeger said, “or we all aren’t.”

If you go …

What: Pete Seeger, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Guy Davis in a benefit concert in support of Common Ground on the Hill.

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: WMC Alumni Hall at McDaniel College, 2 College Hill, Westminster

Tickets: $75 for orchestra, $50 for lower mezzanine, $40 for balcony, $10 for children 12 and younger in mezzanine and balcony sections.

Information: 410-857-2771 or

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Pete Seeger: The Power of Song on DVD

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (2007)


Director: Jim Brown

Cast: Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen

The Weinstein Company; US DVD: 

Aug 2008; 2007

Official Site

It sounds beautifully naïve – the notion that if one man could get everyone in the world to sing together, there’d be a lot less war and animosity among the citizens. Even more foolhardy is the belief that anyone would be willing to try it. But Pete Seeger is not just ‘anyone’. As the founding father of the modern folk movement, as instrumental as Woody Guthrie in bringing the muse of the people to the supposedly sophisticated city streets, he suffered for both his art and his politics. In his time he was both pop star and pariah, a Billboard chart topper who saw his early fascination with Communism cost him dearly. Still, he never apologizes for the roads he’s taken. To Pete Seeger, they’re all paths to one thing – getting people to sing.

From the time he was very young, Seeger was influenced by his musically inclined parents. During a tour of rural regions (where the family tried to bring classical composers to the “masses”), elder Seeger was introduced to traditional folk music. It would soon become a passion he would share with his gifted son. Over the years, Pete grew into a student of sound, working with famed archivists and attending Harvard. But his true calling was performance, and when he began celebrating and recording the pro-union tunes of the Depression era, he instantly found his calling. Over the next 50 years, he would change the way the world looked at folk, arguing for the value in local artists and sound social principles. Of course, his conviction would cost him. No one can stand on their morals for long without being knocked down. But the great thing about Pete Seeger is that he kept getting back up, and at almost 90, he’s still fighting for the inherent force in music. 

In a category that is growing in greatness exponentially, the stunning documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (new to DVD from The Weinstein Company and their Mirian Collection label) brilliantly immortalizes an already living legend. For many decades removed from the fascinating folk movement of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, this activist artist is perhaps a Dylan-descended footnote, a name they recognize but fail to fully understand the import of. But thanks to director Jim Brown, who previously captured Seeger as part of the equally amazing The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time, allows the man his proper place in history. One cannot walk away from this spellbinding narrative and not feel both proud to live in a country that offers such talents and freedoms and sad for the government policies and blinkered politicians who twisted those tenets into something sordid and evil.

One of the most striking elements of Seeger’s story is his 17 year banishment from the commercial airwaves. Accused of being a Communist by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (and he had been a card carrying member in the past), the “red” stain resulted in an equally shocking color – black (as in ‘list’). While still a viable concert draw, Seeger also added to his troubles by being an outspoken supporter of civil rights. His hatred of segregation and the South’s disgusting Jim Crow laws led to appearances and protests, as well as confrontations with agitators and threats against his life. Yet all the while, Seeger still believed in the command of music. He was certain that if people heard the message and understood the tradition, they’d give up on outdated notions of hate and prejudice.

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song is definitely a summarization of the man’s amazing career. Before we know it, he’s working for the Library of Congress, serving in World War II, and turning “We Shall Overcome” into an anthem for Dr. Martin Luther King. As to the latter claim, the now nearly 90 year old is rather sheepish. It’s how he’s been most of his life. Seeger has been at the forefront of many significant changes in our culture, and yet when it seems like time to canonize the participants, his beatification is left for another, not so contentious day. There are moments in Power of Song that show us such late in life reverence. President Bill Clinton (who awarded Seeger the Kennedy Center honor in 1994) speaks of him in sacred terms, while the musician is approached by an older woman in Washington Square Park, her praise of his influence on her life and children almost overwhelming in its sincerity.

With its talking head approach and archival nostalgia, Power of Song paints a authoritative portrait. Everyone from Dylan to Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary to Bruce Springsteen step up to put the man in perspective, and ever the hero, Seeger takes it all in humble stride. We only seem him worked up when discussing his infamous return to TV in 1967. Scheduled to sing his latest anti-war anthem “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, it marked a major return for him. After performing the song (among several), he was shocked to see it edited out of the final airing. Turns out CBS, bowing to White House pressure, removed the segment, the lyrical phrase “and the big fool says push on” viewed as a slam against then President Johnson.

During this material, Seeger seems tense, mortified at a media that, even today, will succumb to censorship for the sake of some ambiguous political goals. He’s saddened to see that his beloved country is still making the same mistakes, and takes small pleasures in providing the impetus to support the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the clean up of the Hudson River Valley. Because of its inability to be totally in-depth, it would have been nice for this DVD to include more contextual bonuses. Seeger’s story is that important. Instead, we get three somewhat preachy ‘deleted’ scenes, and five short films his family made focusing on skill like how to play the banjo and how to make a steel drum. It’s not that these extras have no value, it’s just that with a life as compelling as his, Power of Song could have added several hours of intriguing supplements.

We’ll just have to be satisfied with the film at hand, and in a category that’s seen lots of amazing artist biographies, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song is simply one of the best. It takes it subject and his importance seriously while never sugarcoated the complications that brought on many of his misfortunes. Watching him perform “Guatanamera” with his grandson and Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall, voice wispy and faded after 80+ years of singing, we’re reminded of how important and influential he really was/is. Without Pete Seeger, modern music would be missing many of its most important components. And as long as he’s around, there’s hope for a brighter tomorrow. That’s the power of Pete Seeger. That’s the power of Power of Song

Bill Gibron

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