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 http://www.commongroundonthehill.org.